Topic: Education and Child Policy

Stop Blaming the States!

Yesterday, both the House and Senate passed the atrocious new Higher Education Act, a 1,158-page monstrosity packing 62 new programs, oodles of new spending, and a bureaucrats’ dream of new rules and regulations. I won’t go into all the gory details — I’d need hundreds of blogs just to do the file-sharing provisions justice — but one piece in particular really gets my goat.

One of the services the new HEA supposedly provides is that it will encourage states to keep up their share of higher education funding so that public colleges don’t have to make money — here comes every student group’s favorite phrase — “on the backs of students.” Thankfully, it’s a weak measure, threatening only to withhold a state’s allocation of a small, new grant program, but it’s the entire premise on which it’s built that’s infuriating. Today’s Wall Street Journal article on the bill provides a great example of the problem:

It is this very reduction of funding that state schools cite as an important factor pushing them to raise tuition. Total state appropriations for higher education have dropped to 11% for fiscal 2008, down from 15% 20 years ago, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Meanwhile, the average annual cost of attendance at a four-year public college, including tuition, fees and room and board, was $13,589 in 2007-08, 78% higher than it was two decades before, even after adjusting for inflation, according to the New York nonprofit College Board.

The argument here is that because the percentage of funding that schools get from their states has declined, the states aren’t keeping up their end of the funding bargain. But the real question should be whether states are staying consistent with their total per-pupil funding, which shows whether their commitment to higher ed has been steady. It has been: While state spending has fluctuated largely in accordance with the ups-and-downs of the economy, the 20-plus-year trend is one of overall consistent funding. This graph from the State Higher Education Executive Officers’ report State Higher Education Finance: FY 2007 makes this abundantly clear:

In real dollars, the 2007 public appropriation per full-time-equivalent student was $6,773, $34 higher than in 1980. Indeed, the highest public expenditure on the chart, $7,581, was very recent — 2001 — and while there have been lots of fluctuations, the trend is clear: states have been keeping up with their expenditures.

Something else, then, must be responsible for rampant tuition inflation — maybe, ever-increasing student aid, colleges and universities having more and more sources of income, or both — and state taxpayers shouldn’t be scapegoated by federal politicians. But then, what would be the excuse for passing garbage like the new Higher Education Act?

Public Education vs. Public Schooling

A few days ago, I wrote a blog entry taking umbrage at, among other things, Kevin Carey’s failure to acknowledge the distinction between public schooling and public education. Yesterday, the Atlanta Journal Constitution ran an op-ed by Allene Magill, executive director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, complaining that some Georgia lawmakers are abandoning public education by supporting vouchers and other public-school alternatives. Like Carey’s, her assumption that “public education” means government providing schools, not just enabling people to pursue education, is both dangerously imprecise and pervasive. It’s time we clearly make the distinction between public education and public schooling.

If one looks at the term “public education,” nothing about it implies that government must provide schools. What it implies is that government will make education accessible to the public while saying nothing about how that will be done. (It could also just refer to educating the public without any government involvement, but let’s assume it doesn’t.) In other words, vouchers, tax-based choice mechanisms, and other forms of government-funded school choice are totally compatible with “public education.” Suggesting that they aren’t simply cannot be supported by the term being used.

Fortunately, there is a term that does strongly imply a system in which government provides the public not just with the means to obtain an education, but schools themselves. It’s called “public schooling,” a term I use repeatedly—and intentionally—in my piece attacked by Carey, and a system that, as I wrote, is very much at odds with basic American values.

I hope that this clarifies the difference between “public education” and “public schooling” and will help to end the mistaken assumption that the terms are synonymous. They aren’t, and school choice is fully compatible with public education. Of course, that might be exactly why some people try so hard to blot out distinctions between the terms.

Depth Takes a Holiday

In yesterday’s New York Times, David Brooks lamented the yawning chasm in educational attainment that divides America: the children of wealthy and highly-educated parents graduate from high school and go on to college vastly more often than those of lower-income, less educated parents. Here, he is on solid ground. But, columnists being columnists, Brooks goes on to give us his unsubstatiated opinion that: “Barack Obama’s education proposals… flow naturally and persuasively from this research,” while “McCain’s policies seem largely oblivious to these findings,” as exemplified by the Republican’s “vague talk about school choice.”

A look at the evidence reveals Brooks’ intuition to be exactly backwards.

Senator Obama’s education platform can verily be described as more of what the federal government has already been doing: more spending on government pre-school programs aimed at ever-younger children, especially the fifty-year-old Head Start program; tweaking of the No Child Left Behind act to make it look a little more like it did in its first four decades, when it went under the name Elementary and Secondary Education Act., etc.

But these programs were in full blown operation during the entire period, from the seventies to the nineties, during which Brooks notes that ”America’s educational progress slowed to a crawl.” So Brooks is arguing that doing more of the same is a “natural” and “persuasive” solution to our longstanding educational problems. His hope in this regard is indeed audacious.

And what of McCain’s “vague talk” about private school choice programs? Is it really irrelevant to the educational attainment gap that Brooks is so concerned with? If Brooks had spend just a few minutes Googling the issue he would have come across the nationwide study by University of Chicago economist Derek Neal showing that urban African Americans are vastly more likely to graduate from high school, gain acceptance to college, and graduate from college if they attend Catholic rather than public schools. He would have found the similar findings by Evans and Schwab. He might even have come across the two separate studies of the Milwaukee voucher program showing significantly higher graduation rates for the poor students attending private schools under that program than for students in the Milwaukee public school system. 

People who actually care about the socio-economic divide in our nation should familiarize themselves with the evidence before trying to influence public opinion on presidential candidates or policies.

No Resort Left Behind

A few years ago I wrote a paper trying to itemize where federal education dollars go. Unfortunately, no one keeps comprehensive data on uses like this. Apparently, you just can’t analyze student performance without “four-and-a-half acres of indoor gardens and winding waterways….a 25,000-square-foot day spa and fitness center” and “the energy of Glass Cactus nightclub.”

Must You Smear?

Over at Flypaper, Liam Julian has started a Quick and the Ed Watch, a quest to expose every bit of hyperbole that comes out of the blog belonging to the think tank Education Sector. Well, we at Cato have had our own share of run-ins with those fine folks, and Kevin Carey’s response to my current Cato Policy Report cover story shows why.

Carey has chosen to use my piece as the latest exhibit in his case to prove that there’s a “libertarian conspiracy to destroy public education,” and he writes with the tone of a man convinced he’s got me and the conspiracy on our way to death row:

there really are people out there who simply want to dismantle the entire enterprise….People like Neil [sic] McCluskey…who recently published a new policy brief explaining why public education is intrinsically un-American. Again, that’s not bloggerly snark, it’s the actual thesis: McCluskey believes that public education is a “fundamentally flawed–and un-American–institution” and a later subhead describes “Public Schooling’s Un-American Ideals.”

Maybe I should blame myself for this. I did write that public schooling is a “fundamentally flawed—and un-American—institution.” Of course, Carey asserts that I said public education is the problem. Apparently, I didn’t make a clear enough distinction between the two. So when I wrote, for instance, that we should “end public schooling and return to public education….Ensure that the poor can access education, but let parents decide how and where their children will be educated,” I was obviously being too verbose. Who could read that and know that I’m against government-dominated, take-what-we-give-you public schooling, while I favor empowering all parents to themselves pursue good education for their children? And why does Carey fail to address any of the substance of what I wrote, like data showing that early-American education worked for broad swaths of people, or quotes demonstrating that social control has been the aim of many public-schooling advocates? I guess I should have written something much shorter, or done a YouTube video, or written a Haiku, or something.

Actually, I’m starting to think this isn’t my fault at all. The problem is that Carey is trying to do what far too many public-schooling defenders resort to when presented with reasoned critiques of their favorite institution: smear the messenger, and try to keep the substance of the message from seeing even the slightest light of day.

Sadly, Carey’s blatant disregard for the distinction I drew between public schooling and public education, and even his failure to consider any of my major points or evidence, isn’t what ends up taking the sorry cake. The lowest point is his effort to equate opposing government-dominated schooling with supporting propertied-class privilege, disenfranchised women, and all sorts of other inequalities that Carey knows weren’t the products of a free education system, but rather legally—read: government—imposed constrictions. And I might add that public schooling systems segregated African-Americans well into the 20th Century and treated lots of minority groups as second-class citizens. I would never use this, though, to blow off defenders of public schooling as somehow being neo-segregationists. That’s just not how we in “the libertarian conspiracy to destroy public education” roll.

State Budget Problems Can Be Solved, Without Cuts

Chris Edwards rightly takes the Wall Street Journal to task for its breathless report that “the stumbling U.S. economy is forcing states to slash spending and cut jobs in order to close a projected $40 billion shortfall in the current fiscal year.”

Like he says, smaller spending increases are “certainly no crisis after the orgy of budget expansion in recent years.”And Medicaid spending is dangerously out of control.

I’d only add that states are spending much more on k-12 education than Medicaid. At 25 percent of all state-derived expenditures, it’s almost double Medicaid’s 13 percent share. State spending on k-12 education dwarfs any other category.

And while cuts in government spending are a good thing, saving money with a huge expansion of freedom is even better.

That’s why the best way solve state budget problems is something no one is yet considering; broad-based school choice.

Here’s what the five states in our recent fiscal analysis of the Public Education Tax Credit stand to save if they do what’s right and greatly expand educational freedom:

Texas saves $15.9 billion in the first 10 years and $5.4 billion every year after the program has been in operation for 15 years.

New York saves $15.1 billion in the first 10 years and $4.8 billion every year after the program has been in operation for 15 years.

Wisconsin saves $9.3 billion in the first 10 years and $3.2 billion every year after the program has been in operation for 15 years.

Illinois saves $5.1 billion in the first 10 years and $1.6 billion every year after the program has been in operation for 15 years.

South Carolina saves $1.1 billion in the first 10 years and $350 million every year after the program has been in operation for 15 years.

If the Swedish System Is Socialist, What’s Ours?

As a recent AP story helpfully points out, big government, dirigist Sweden has had a private school choice program since the early 1990s, and parents are loving it. Private school enrollment is up from one percent to ten percent of total enrollment, and still climbing.

Interestingly, Sweden’s education system was described today in a separate news story as “socialist.” Now I’m the first to acknowledge that Sweden’s system is far from a completely free market (see the AP story above), but it is certainly less socialist than our own public school systems in the United States, which automatically assign most kids to government-run institutions.

So if reporters think the Swedish system is socialist, why don’t they describe ours in the same way?