Topic: Education and Child Policy

Obama’s “Audacity” with NEA Proves Nothing

Some in the edublogosphere are making a big deal out of Barack Obama addressing the National Education Association—the nation’s most powerful labor union—from Montana instead of their convention in D.C., and for garnering some boos for his support of “performance pay.”

Joe Williams, writing on the Democrats for Education Reform blog, declares that Obama’s address proved him to be a candidate “who won’t be forced to play by the old rules, and one who is refreshingly willing to point out the extent of the very big problems he is trying to solve.” Meanwhile, Mike Antonucci, who runs the Education Intelligence Agency and provides invaluable insights into the nation’s teachers unions—as well as insider video of Obama’s speech to the convention—argues that Obama’s tepidly endorsing a few things NEA activists don’t like is pretty big news.

As Colonel Potter would have said on M*A*S*H, “horse hockey!”

It’s not the least bit shocking that Senator Obama threw something into his speech about performance pay. He knew darn well the assembly would reject it, just as they did last year. It’s exactly what he wanted: Something that people would swoon over as truly audacious change but that ultimately has no downside. It’s not like the NEA was going to withdraw its endorsement over a quick taste of veggies. The NEA is as Democratic as they come, and if you watch the whole address you’ll see Obama shoveling in all the red meat the union loves: demonizing vouchers, decrying underfunding of No Child Left Behind, lamenting the supposed scapegoating of teachers—the works!

The sound of inflatable “thundersticks” rumbling approval throughout almost all of Obama’s speech doesn’t lie: the Senator didn’t really hurt himself with the NEA. On the flip side, he very well might have gained important points with members of the electorate prone to mistaking shrewd strategy for real change.

The Most Valuable Reading First Lesson of All

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has an op-ed in today’s Washington Post exhorting Congress to save the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the voucher initiative for the nation’s capital that last year gave 1,900 children a chance to go to better schools. As far as the Fordham Foundation’s Mike Petrilli is concerned, it’s close to wasted ink. Instead of worrying about school choice, Spellings should be complaining that Congress is going to kill Reading First, a federal program that may or may not give an extra boost to reading ability, but that Congressional Democrats have had a field day demonizing as corrupt, one suspects not because they think Reading First doesn’t work, but because doing so plays to their NCLB- and phonics-despising teacher-union base.

As an optimist, I prefer not to think that Spellings wrote her piece because she forgot that somehow what’s of absolutely overriding importance is saving Reading First. I prefer to think that she might have actually learned from the Reading First saga and finally become convinced that politics tends to destroy programs she thinks are absolutely tremendous. I prefer to think that she is accepting clear reality: If we want real reform, we have to let kids out of a system in which political concerns always trump educational.

Of course, she probably hasn’t had any such epiphany, but at least there’s slim reason for hope. When it comes to Fordham, in contrast, the priorities they lay out for Spellings strongly suggest that there’s almost no hope at all.

Voucher Valedictorian

NRO has an editorial today by that title, sharing the story of Tiffany Dunston: class valedictorian at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. and first person in her family to attend college (she’s headed for Syracuse to study biochemistry and French). As it happens, she was attending Carroll thanks to financial assistance from DC’s voucher program, and her mother couldn’t otherwise have afforded the tuition. “I started praying every day because I didn’t want to go to a neighborhood school,” Tiffany told a reporter. “I was so nervous — there was no way to know if I was going to get the scholarship.”

Actually, though, there is a way she could have known that she would get the financial assistance she needed: if Congress and the City council replaced DC’s $24,600 per pupil monopoly with a universal system of school choice.

Instead, it seems likely that the next Congress will kill the fledgling school choice program that made Tiffany’s dreams come true. Over the coming year, congressional opponents of school choice must ask themselves: is it right to steal children’s dreams to curry favor with public school employee unions?

The NEA: America (Gulp!) in Microcosm

The National Education Association, the most powerful labor union in the country, wants it both ways. It wants every single nickel it can squeeze out of federal taxpayers, but it doesn’t want anyone in Washington telling public schools what they have to do for the money. So despite advocating an ever-greater federal role in education for nearly a century, and practically ramming the U.S. Department of Education down the nation’s throat in the late 1970s, the NEA has declared in the fact sheet for a new “great public schools” manifesto that “constitutionally, education is reserved to the states.” Of course, in just the next line it declares that “the federal government has a vital role to play in advancing the quality of America’s public schools”—that role primarily being to spend lots of money—so you can see the contradiction.

No doubt the NEA’s message would be different were it not for the No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush’s administration’s signature domestic achievement that’s supposed to make schools show some progress for their federal booty. The law, as has been well documented, is at best unproven and at worst a cruel sham that promises high standards but delivers empty promises and deception. But that’s not why the NEA hates it. They hate it because they don’t want anyone telling them what to do with education money. They want to dictate terms, but the Bush administration prefers to do the dictating itself.

The root problem—aside from the fact that dictatorships pretty much only work for the dictators—is the utter disregard for the Constitution demonstrated by the NEA, big-government conservatives, and the millions of Americans who for decades have treated the Constitution as a wonderful relic to be admired in the National Archives, trotted out whenever they don’t like something the feds are threatening to do, but ignored when they come up with something they think it would be nice for Washington to give them.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t demand that the federal government fund something it’s not supposed to be involved in and then expect it to leave you alone. You can’t demand that the Constitution protect you from what you don’t like and then cast it aside to get things you do. You can either always respect the document that gives Washington only a few, specifically enumerated powers, or you can forget about having any protection at all.

That’s a lesson the NEA needs desperately to learn. Unfortunately, it’s far from alone.

Happy 4th of July…

With Friends Like These…

The American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE) used to be beloved by conservatives for its staunch advocacy of traditional liberal arts education, not the politically correct, pseudo-intellectual pabulum conservatives think is dribbling out of most American schools.

But then AALE got in the way of the Bush administration’s obsession with declaring itself the head of all education, and has like St. Thomas More ever since been languishing in the college accreditors’ version of the Tower of London, waiting as the U.S. Department of Education has seemingly searched for ways to have it “legally” killed. Inside Higher Ed has more on what has happened to these one-time conservative friends since they’ve dared to say that higher education can’t be reduced to simple, standardized-test scores, and to resist big-government conservatives’ most unconservative education power-grab.

Tax Revenue Tanking? Act Now on Education Tax Credits and Watch Your Savings Grow!

With a sluggish economy and rising costs for everything, state and local governments are facing serious budget problems. It’s clear that there’s a lot of spending that they should simply cut outright. But politicians hate doing that.
But there is one way to save billions of dollars without cutting a single program or budget; broad-based education tax credits.

A fiscal impact analysis of our Public Education Tax Credit from our own Andrew Coulson and economist Anca Cotet was released today that shows the potential savings for 5 states.

Education spending makes up about half of most state budgets and is the biggest item at the local level, so we expected major savings from our broad-based program. But the totals surprised even us.

Here are the pretty stunning highlights:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

This Little Philly Did NOT Go to Market

The Washington Post claims that Philadelphia’s contracting out of 45 public schools to private management firms represented a test of whether “the free market could educate children more efficiently than the government.” It represented no such thing, and to claim otherwise the Post must not understand the city’s contracting arrangements or the nature of free markets.

Families cannot choose from among the privately managed schools. Students are assigned to these schools based on where they live, just as is the case with traditional state-run schools. Markets require consumer choice, and no consumer choice exists in this contracting arrangement. A free market also requires significant autonomy for providers. Under the contract signed by Edison Schools, the largest contractor, its teachers and principals remain employees of the school district. Edison is also bound to honor the terms of the collective barganing agreement reached between the local teachers’ union and the district. Hence, Edison may only make “recommendations” as to who will work in its schools, and has little input on the salaries they will be paid or the length of the school day or year, or other relevant factors. Finally, markets require a price system driven by supply and demand, but the private management firms may not charge tuition, and in any event they are not chosen so there is no basis for demand-driven pricing.

Philadelphia did not create a “free market” in education. What it did was to subcontract aspects of its monopoly to providers of its own choosing – an arrangement not too far afield from the one that gave the Defense Department $640 toilet seats. As I noted five years ago, there was never any reason to expect this subcontracting to yield dramatic gains.

As if to drive home the lack of research that went into this story, the Post’s reporter asserts that DC public schools suffer “a lack of funding.” Three months ago, I calculated the total per pupil spending in the District this year as $24,600, roughly $10,000 more than total per pupil spending in area private schools. That calculation was published in… the Washington Post (with further details on this blog).