Topic: Education and Child Policy

Dropouts. Starving for a Good Education

“Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings will require all states to use one federal formula to calculate graduation and dropout rates,” reports the New York Times, as part of a campaign to keep more kids in school.

The idea that we can reduce the public school dropout rate simply by measuring it better is misguided. It’s like believing that the North Koreans could improve their economy by more accurately measuring the number of people who are starving. As with the North Korean economy, the problem with U.S. public schooling is that it is a monopoly that takes choice away from families, takes professional autonomy away from educators, and takes normal economic incentives away from everyone.

Meanwhile, there is evidence from a sophisticated nationwide study that inner city minority kids – those most at risk of dropping out – are more likely to graduate, more likely to get into college, and more likely to graduate from college if they attend private instead of public schools – and that’s true after controlling for differences in student and family background. Other small scale studies of the Milwaukee school voucher program show similar results.

We already know how to reduce the dropout rate: ensure that all families can easily afford to choose the public or private schools best suited to their children. Until that happens, expect to see millions of American kids continuing to starve for a real education.

Myth Dodger

Every Sunday, the Washington Post lets someone bust five myths about some public-policy matter. Most recently, the buster—or shall I say dodger—was Chester E. Finn Jr., President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, who addressed five contentious accusations about the No Child Left Behind Act. Why “dodger”? Because rather than directly address the myths, in most cases Finn offered either tangential, deceptive, or just plain inaccurate responses. Let’s look at the five myths and Finn’s answers to them, but rather than go in the order that Finn listed the myths, let’s work from the smallest dodge to the largest.

Least-dodged myth: We begin at the end of Finn’s list, with Finn attacking the notion that “certified teachers are better than non-certified teachers.” Finn argues that “there’s no solid evidence that state teacher certification ensures classroom effectiveness,” and here he’s right on the money. In fact, I wrote the same thing just a few weeks ago.

Getting a little dodgier: In his second entry, Finn disputes the assertion that “No Child Left Behind is egregiously underfunded.” Here he rightly takes issue with constant complaints that NCLB is underfunded because Washington has never spent the full amount authorized under the law. 100 percent of an authorized amount is almost never spent under any law, and Finn correctly points out that “viewed that way, nearly everything born in Washington is underfunded.”

Where Finn runs into trouble is that he fails to directly address another common underfunding complaint: NCLB requires states and districts to do things—write and implement new tests, produce report cards, comply with lots of new rules and regulations—without supplying sufficient funds to pay for them. Finn logically points out that public schools in the U.S. spend nearly $10,000 per-pupil (though it’s more like $11,500 and counting), so they have plenty of money to implement new things, but to directly bust the myth it’s necessary to show that NCLB pays for what it requires.

Mid-way dodge: The third myth Finn addresses is that “setting academic standards will fix U.S. schools.” Finn is a proponent of national standards, so it’s no surprise that he finesses this myth by acknowledging that NCLB encourages states to set low standards while simultaneously suggesting that standards-based reforms can work if “good standards” are in place.

Finn is right about NCLB’s perverse incentives—if schools and states don’t make progress toward 100-percent “proficiency” they are punished, but states define proficiency for themselves—however, its a big leap to imply that government schools will ever put “good standards” in place. Teachers, school administrators, and education bureaucrats who have a strong interest in low, easy-to-meet standards control education politics, which might be why only three states—Massachusetts, California and South Carolina—have standards Finn considers good, and two of these three might soon have their high standards go away.

The runner-up dodge: In the penultimate dodge—and the fourth myth attacked on his list—Finn addresses the belief that “standardized testing required by No Child Left Behind gets in the way of real learning.” Instead of arguing that NCLB’s standardized testing requirements truly don’t get in the way of real learning, Finn argues that if testing is “an honest measure of a solid curriculum” it doesn’t have to get in the way. But based on the “setting academic standards” myth discussed above, we know that states aren’t honestly measuring solid curricula. And then there’s what Finn himself has written: Because NCLB puts all the carrots, sticks, and tests on math and reading, it has pushed other important subjects dangerously close to the margins, most definitely jeopardizing “real learning.”

The Big Dodge: Finn started with his big dodge, and I’ll end with it. Despite all logic and evidence screaming that it is absolutely not a myth that “No Child Left Behind is an unprecedented extension of federal control over schools,” Finn says it is. Why? Because states don’t have to follow the law if they’ll just turn down federal money, and NCLB is really just the latest incarnation of the decades-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

First off, while states do “volunteer” to take federal money, their taxpayers have no choice but to pony the funds up in the first place, which means by following NCLB states are really just getting back hundreds-of-millions of their taxpayers’ dollars. And the notion that because NCLB is the latest permutation of ESEA it isn’t an unprecedented intrusion? Well, the original ESEA was only about 50 pages long, while NCLB occupies more than 600 pages! And the additional 550 sheets aren’t just filled with meaningless doodles or love notes; they contain scads of directives and programs heaped onto the law over decades of reauthorizations, including brand-new NCLB requirements for testing, teacher qualifications, “scientifically-based” reading curricula, etc. In other words, NCLB is absolutely an unprecedented extension of federal power, and no amount of myth-dodging can change that.

Where Are Our Gold Medals?

One of the most revolting things that a politician can do is accept a hero’s accolades for passing a law that generously spends other people’s money. So I ask Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the other politicians honored for giving D.C. students taxpayer dollars, and the officials who run the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program, where’s my gold medal, and the gold medals for all the other federal taxpayers who actually fund the generous tuition grants for which politicians are being given such great adulation?

Bidding Adieu to No Child Left Behind?

Over the last few days there’s been a rash of stories about state legislators pushing to get out from under the No Child Left Behind Act.

In Arizona, the state’s House of Representatives yesterday approved by a voice vote a measure that would take the state out of NCLB’s standards-and-testing regime. A formal vote is expected as early as next week.

In Minnesota a day earlier, the state’s House K-12 Finance Committee passed an amendment to a supplemental budget bill that would pull the North Star State out of NCLB.

Finally, at the beginning of the month, the Virginia legislature passed a bill requiring the State Board of Education to recommend whether Virginia should withdraw from NCLB. It was a loud enough signal of revolt that yesterday U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings paid the Old Dominion State a visit and warned it not to drop out of her favorite law.

Unfortunately, though it might be uncomfortable to watch efforts to get states out of NCLB repeatedly percolating, the Secretary needn’t worry that too many states will actually break away. They just can’t seem to turn down the federal (read: taxpayer) money.

Few people in Virginia expect the State Board of Education to recommend turning down the roughly $364 million in federal education funds that the legislature itself didn’t have the courage to reject. In Minnesota, there’s good reason to believe the get-out-of-NCLB amendment won’t make it into law, lest roughly $200 million be sacrificed. Finally in Arizona, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne warned that “the problem is, we would lose over a half-billion dollars a year. And it would go to the schools that need it the most: the low-income schools.” Considering that Arizona’s amendment would only pull the state out if it reimbursed local districts for lost federal dollars, Horne is probably right.

There’s little question that many, if not most, states want to get free of the No Child Left Behind Act. Regrettably, there’s also little question that they’re unwilling to sacrifice hundreds of millions of dollars to do so.

Newt: Schools Are a ‘National Security Issue.’

Newt Gingrich gave a luncheon talk about education at the American Enterprise Institute today.  Among other things, he said he’d “argue with any conservative” about the role of the federal government with respect to education.  It’s a matter of national security, he said.  He called on the secretary of defense to give a speech every year on the state of our schools. 

Just the latest indication of the drift on the right.  Ronald Reagan promised to abolish the Department of Education.  In 1996, after the GOP captured the Congress, Bill Bennett and Lamar Alexander urged Congress to abolish the Department of Education.  Within a few years, the GOP was supporting Bill Clinton’s proposal to hire 100,000 teachers.  Then Bush came along with his “Leave No Child Behind” law, which expanded the role of the federal government further.  Now this. 

Will the GOP ticket be McCain-Gingrich? 

Teachers: “All Your Money Are Belong to Us”

The Georgia legislature is currently considering a scholarship donation tax credit program that would allow individuals and businesses to give money to non-profit scholarship granting organizations that make it easier for parents to afford independent schooling for their kids.

In arguing against the bill, the head of the state’s public school employee organization, Jeff Hubbard, had this to say: “Our opposition is [to] taking state funds, taxpayer income, and giving it over to private schools.”

Umm…. The thing is, state funds and taxpayer income are not interchangeable terms, however much public school employee organizations might wish them to be. You see, you aren’t entitled to all taxpayer income – or even to all state funds – but just to those funds appropriated by the state in taxes and then allocated to the business of running public schools. When taxpayers claim a tax credit for a donation to help low income kids, no money ever enters the state’s coffers. So you see, these are in fact private funds.

For a good discussion of all this, see the Arizona Supreme Court’s ruling in Kotterman v. Killian (.pdf), upholding that state’s scholarship donation tax credit program, in part, on the grounds that the donated funds are not state money.

It’s Almost Like You Can’t Have One-Size-Fits-All Day

Apparently, Florida’s Hillsborough County School District has tried to take religion off the calendar, resulting in almost everyone—religious or not—taking Good Friday off. As reported in the St. Petersburg Times on Monday:

After most Hills­borough students skipped classes on Good Friday, superintendent MaryEllen Elia initially used religion to explain the huge disparities in absentee rates between schools.

“Schools reflect their particular community. You may have in a community a particular religious affiliation that is strong,” Elia said.

This morning, the Times’ editors saw things differently:

The Hillsborough County School District should be embarrassed by the mess it made of classes on Good Friday. This was a regular school day, included on the calendar. Yet rather than function as normal, the district made clear to religious conservatives and overindulgent parents that students and staff could blow off the school day.

This issue should have been settled. Hillsborough spent two years wrangling in the national limelight over the calendar before agreeing to a secular schedule that recognized no religious holidays. Yet rather than hold fast to a decision already made and vetted by a committee of school officials and parents, the district gave a wink and a nod to treat Good Friday as an unofficial holiday.

The massive confusion over whether Good Friday was really a holiday led not only to many kids missing school for religious activities, but lots heading to the malls and beaches for more secular observances. It’s a somewhat extreme example of what regularly happens with one-size-fits-all public schooling: When you try to legislate away the values held by one group, you often end up creating havoc for everyone, whether with school calendars, textbook adoptions, freedom of speech, and the list goes on.

But how can we avoid these constant clashes and crashes? Oh, right: Instead of forcing everyone to support a single system, we could let parents use their public education dollars to choose their children’s schools. Then religious folks could pick schools with acceptable calendars, mathematical traditionalists could get the “old” math, conservative parents could choose which penguins their children read about, and so on.

But, of course, all that freedom would never work, right? It would just lead to chaos…