Topic: Education and Child Policy

I’ll Tell You What’s Tedious

Jonah Goldberg finds “conservative complaints about Barack Obama’s public-schools hypocrisy…all a bit tedious.” Well, aside from my not having actually seen many conservatives complaining about Obama choosing a private school for his kids while telling the rest of us to support public schools, I find arguments like Goldberg’s main one tedious. Very tedious. Like, we-should-just-keep-trying-to-force-excellence-out-of-socialism tedious.

Here’s the meat of Goldberg’s contribution to education reform:

The real issue is why the public schools are unacceptable to pretty much anyone, liberal or conservative, who has other options.

His culprit, talk about tedious:

Teachers unions, arguably the single worst mainstream institution in our country today.

Now, I’m sure not going to tell you the teachers unions aren’t a pain. They are. But they are not our root education problem in any way, shape or form. The root problem is that we have a system in which no one has a choice – that’s right, boring ol’ “choice” – about financing a government education monopoly, and there is little competition, innovation, or anything else decent as a result.

Oh, and why does Goldberg think the unions have so much power, anyway? Surely he knows that private-sector unions have been disintegrating for decades while their public-sector cousins keep going strong. That’s because no one can choose not to fund the public sector – unless, that is, they enjoy time behind bars – while industries that are disciplined by consumer choice simply can’t afford efficiency-crushing unions.

So let’s get one thing straight. School choice – especially universal school choice – is not some boring cop-out that dull folks reflexively whimper about because they’ve got nothing better to say. No, it is the essential ingredient to getting an education system that actually works, and no amount of pooh-poohing it for the sake of excitement, giggles, seeming cool, or whatever, can change that.

There’s No Change Here

He’s still months away from officially becoming president, but on education Barack Obama is already indicating that his brand of change is much more about high-flying rhetoric than sober reality. Whether it’s choosing a private school for his kids, or promising to expend billions to “modernize” public schools, so far Mr. Obama is turning out to be just as politicized as everyone else in Washington.

Start with Obama’s choice of the Sidwell Friends School for his kids, which was sneakily announced around 5:00 pm on Friday — perfect timing to ensure the decision got as little press as possible (not that the press was going to be tough, anyway). There is nothing wrong with the president-elect selecting the best possible school for his kids — indeed, doing so is his obligation as a parent — but as documented by Andrew Coulson, the hypocrisy is glaring for those who choose to see it.

“We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools; not throwing our hands up and walking away from them,” Mr. Obama declared to the American Federation of Teachers this summer. But, of course, by “we” he meant “you,” just like all those folks in Congress mean when they send their kids to private institutions while opposing school choice and singing the praises of saintly public schools.

But perhaps even more aggravating than President-elect Obama’s eschewing public schools for his daughters — again, it is his responsibility to get them the best education he can — is his proposal to include presumptive billions (I’ve not yet seen an itemized breakdown of proposed spending) on public-school construction as part of his ever-growing economic stimulus plan.

As I testified to Congress earlier this year, heap all the federal cash you want on school construction, you’re neither going to fix most of the true problems nor get any kind of value for taxpayers. Indeed, in 1999 the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that it would take about $127 billion to get all U.S. public school facilities into good shape. According to School Planning and Management magazine, however, since 2000 school districts have completed projects totaling more than $166 billion. So why is our schooling infrastructure still crumbling? Because many districts build absurd School-Mahals featuring extravagances ranging from television studios to planetariums, while others are so bogged down in red tape they can’t get anything done.

Of course, as is far too often the case, it probably doesn’t really matter to Obama or others in Washington that money on school construction is almost sure to be wasted. The primary motivation behind Obama’s proposal isn’t educational, but political, with any project backed with federal money almost certain to carry union prevailing-wage requirements — a nice little hors d’oeuvres before the card check main course — and the appearance of caring and “doing something” is most important, anyway.

For a “change” administration still months away from official existence, this does not bode well at all.

The Obamas Walk Away from Public Schools

A few months ago, Barack Obama told a gathering of the American Federation of Teachers that he opposes private school choice programs, adding: “We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools; not throwing our hands up and walking away from them.”

It’s not clear whether or not the president-elect will be able to fix our public schools, and I don’t know if he’s thrown up his hands, but he and his two daughters have just walked away from the public schools. Again. When they move from Chicago to D.C., Malia and Sasha Obama will be moving from the prestigious private Lab School to the prestigious private Sidwell Friends school — Chelsea Clinton’s old stomping ground.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, it’s wonderful that the Obamas had such a broad range of public and private school choices available to them. What’s puzzling is that the president-elect opposes programs that would bring that same easy choice of schools within reach of families who lack his personal wealth. By his actions, Senator Obama is demonstrating that he is not willing to wait for his own policy prescriptions to “fix and improve” public schools, but he expects folks with less ample bank accounts to patiently await his hoped-for change.

And while many reports will no doubt trumpet the $25,000+ tuition at Sidwell Friends, implying that this is extravagantly beyond what is spent in D.C. public schools, they will be mistaken. As I wrote in the Washington Post and on this blog, D.C. public schools also spent about $25,000 per child in the 2007-08 school year.

It’s not that president-elect Obama is against spending a lot of money on other people’s kids — he’s just against letting their parents choose where that money is spent.

College Rent-Seeking and the Meteor

I am a frequent lurker and occasional poster on a chat board for my favorite college hoops team. On that board, some of the chatters refer to games between two of our rivals, or teams we just don’t like, as “meteor games” — contests where instead of having to choose between two evils, we root for a meteor to come crashing down and obliterate the whole arena.

Well right now, on a slightly different college court, there’s just such a game shaping up.

According to an article in today’s Inside Higher Ed, there’s a battle brewing between, on one side, financial aid officers and lenders who want the federal government to bail out banks that make truly private — as opposed to federally backed — student loans, and, on the other side, student and other higher education advocacy groups who hate private lenders because they try to make evil profits. Activist students especially think that making money off of them is unconscionable, and whatever loans they get should have to have very generous terms backed directly — as opposed to indirectly through a bailout — by you, the taxpayer.

A pox — or meteor — on all their houses! In this battle of the utterly shameless rent-seekers, the only good outcome would be for both sides to lose.

When Can You NOT Sue a School?

It seems you can sue a school — and win — if you are a custodian who falls off a stepladder on the job (due, apparently, to having received insufficient training in the use of stepladders).

You can apparently file a suit because your daughter didn’t make the cheerleading squad

But a federal appeals court has just ruled that you CANNOT sue your school district for failing to inform you of the modest school choice rights you are supposedly guaranteed under the No Child Left Behind Act. It isn’t that the suit was filed and lost. The court has ruled that parents do not have standing to sue for their “rights” under NCLB in the first place.

There is another approach to running and funding schools under which everyone would have meaningful choices for their kids, and no one would have to sue anyone to get it.

Let’s Read the Federalist — and Constitution — Right

Over at Jay P. Greene’s blog, Greg Forster takes issue with those who say that the Constitution does not permit federal excursions like No Child Left Behind. I address these concerns over at the New Talk discussion underway since yesterday, and encourage you to check that out. I offer only one, I think fairly conclusive, rebuttal to Forster here.

Greg calls on Federalist Papers nos. 47-51 to argue that federal intervention in state authority over education is presumptively okay because the principle behind checks and balances requires that each federal branch have some power over the others. He admits that these argument are not about federal authority over states, but invokes the Federalist nonetheless.

Unfortunately, Greg misses the clear point of both the Federalist and Constitution concerning federal-state relations. The federal government is given only specific, enumerated powers (see Article 1, Section 8) and all others are reserved to the states or people. It’s put that simply in the Tenth Amendment, and Madison was very clear in Federalist no. 41 that no reading of the Constitution, not even the vaunted “general welfare” clause, gives the federal government authority to be involved in anything outside of the specific, enumerated powers.

“For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power?” Madison asks. “Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars.”

There are arguments for why the federal government should be involved in education — though none that are convincing — but they won’t be found in the Federalist Papers.

There Is NO Conclusive Evidence NCLB Is Working for Anyone

Having just been reading the animated exchange over at New Talk on the merits of preserving or axing the No Child Left Behind act, I notice that the discussants are missing some key evidence on the law’s effectiveness. The conversation has thus far revolved around results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), but there are two other sources of nationally representative score trends: PISA and PIRLS. On both of those international tests, U.S. performance has either stagnated or declined across grades and subjects over the lifespan of NCLB.

Taking these results into account, it is not possible to say with any confidence that NCLB has improved student achievement at any grade or in any subject.

It’s also worth noting that the federal government alone has spent $1.85 trillion on k-12 education since 1965, and yet the achievement gaps between the children of college graduates and those of high-school dropouts remain unchanged in reading and science. In math, the gap has shrunk by barely 1% of the 500 point score scale.

How can one look at these facts and still believe that the federal government has the power to cure our educational ills?