Topic: Education and Child Policy

Stern Shouldn’t Be Taking any Bows…

In an essay to be released later today by the City Journal, Manhattan Institute senior fellow and school voucher supporter Sol Stern argues that recent free market reforms have failed to transform American education, and suggests that choice advocates should refocus on curriculum standards.

The central problem with Stern’s argument is that there have been no recent free market reforms in American education.

As economist John Merrifield, myself, and others have been at pains to point out over the past decade, contemporary U.S. “school choice” reforms lack some or all of the essential characteristics of free markets, and as such cannot be expected to perform like markets. Stern fails to realize this because of a demonstrably poor understanding of what a market is.

Stern’s mistaken notions about markets are starkly revealed when he declares that: “the country’s 1,500 ed schools represent an almost perfect system of choice, markets, and competition.” In reality, ed schools exist to serve the artificial and legally mandated requirement for public school job applicants with state accredited teachers’ college degrees. In the vast majority of states, even states with so-called “alternative certification” programs, anyone who teaches in a public school must have (or be pursuing) a government-approved degree in education. But because the public school system is protected from competition by its monopoly on $13,000 of tax funding per pupil per year, it has no systemic incentive to hire people with skills proven to accelerate learning. Ed school professors know that, and so fill their students’ heads with whatever philosophical, political, and pedagogical views they find most agreeable.

Furthermore, as Marie Gryphon pointed out in Giving Kids the Chaff: How to Find and Keep the Teachers We Need, public school systems often hire less qualified applicants over more qualified applicants. All this is why, as Stern acknowledges, the instruction offered in ed schools is so roundly derided. To mistake this massively distorted, monopoly-driven labor market as “an almost perfect [market] system” reveals a remarkably poor grasp of markets.

Among other things, markets require: prices determined by supply and demand, private ownership of businesses, low or no barriers to the creation of new businesses, few or no barriers to workers entering the profession, minimal regulation, the ability of owners and investors to profit from their efforts, unfettered consumer choice, and payment by consumers rather than a third party. Furthermore, to see any significant market forces, there must be large scale demand – millions of potential customers.

Apple would not have invested millions of dollars developing the first iPod, or dramatically increasing its capacity in recent years, if its customer base had been capped at 22,500 people – as Milwaukee’s voucher program is capped. To expect results such as we see in our vast market economy from tiny and hobbled existing school choice programs is like expecting an electric train set to match the power of a diesel locomotive. And abandoning real market reforms because these toy trains have failed to match some people’s unrealistic expectations is foolish on its face and disastrous public policy.

We will see dramatic progress in the field of education that matches the progress in the rest of our economy only when our school system enjoys all the essential features of that economy. For that to happen, existing school choice programs will have to be dramatically expanded and liberalized, or new programs, such as Cato’s own Public Education Tax Credit plan, will have to be implemented.

As Milton used to say, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Want market results? Make a market.

Et Tu, City Journal? A Terrible Argument for Dismissing School Choice

In a forthcoming City Journal article, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Sol Stern suggests that school choice is failing to measure up, and that choice supporters need to find a “Plan B.” The New York Sun covers Stern’s essay here.

While Stern has done some excellent writing on education in the past, this particular piece is confused and at times factually incorrect. There are many other problems with Stern’s article, but it seems best to begin with the basic facts.

Before calling for a Plan B, one should be aware of the successes of Plan A.

Stern writes, “In 2002, after a decade of organizing by school choice activists, only two programs [for poor children] existed: one in Milwaukee, the other in Cleveland …” In fact, there were three programs that targeted disadvantaged students.

Florida’s voucher program was passed in 1999 and available to students in failing schools, which was used as a proxy or “poor children” (though it was later overturned by that state’s supreme court).

Stern then turns from this very specific accounting to a broad discussion of “proposals for voucher programs” and private school choice in general. But he fails to mention the other voucher programs passed and still in existence; special needs vouchers in Florida, Ohio, Utah, and Georgia and for foster-care children in Arizona.

And although Stern seems most interested in choice programs meant only for disadvantaged children, he fails to mention any of the many education tax credit programs passed in recent years. Five states – Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island – have donation tax credit programs. Nearly $150 million in scholarship funds support close to 100,000 low-income children. And that’s not counting the most recent business-donation programs in Arizona and Rhode Island, or Arizona’s personal-donation tax credit program which serves primarily low-income families.

Stern’s article is simply not an accurate reflection of the significant and accelerating legislative success school choice has seen in recent years.

Pot vs. Kettle

As you may know, Tuesday marked the No Child Left Behind Act’s sixth birthday. At best, it was approached with mixed emotions, like a person’s 50th—it’s a nice milestone, but everything is starting to ache and will almost certainly just get worse. So while President Bush headed to sweet home Chicago to cut cake and blow up balloons for his signature domestic achievement, Senator Edward Kennedy—a crucial NCLB proponent in 2001—wrote a somewhat doleful op-ed in the Washington Post about the once promising law’s problems, a judge resurrected a lawsuit challenging NCLB as an unfunded mandate, and people with sense called for the law’s demise.

Yesterday, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings spoke at the National Press Club in an effort to keep whatever joyful NCLB partying there might have been going. I won’t rehash most of what she said, but want to focus on one part in particular, and encourage you to read her whole speech to see if it doesn’t fully illustrate the point I’m about to make.

Here’s what she said toward the end of her talk:

We are hearing all kinds of rhetoric from the campaign trail: proposals to “scrap” NCLB, to “overhaul” the law, or to “turn around” education in just three years. As a parent, taxpayer, and voter I want more than a sound bite or quick fix. I want someone who recognizes that NCLB has sparked a more sophisticated dialogue that’s driving real improvement for all students. We have to ask, which comes first, politics or kids? No Child Left Behind is not just a catchy phrase. It’s a statement about who we are, and what kind of country we want to be.

Spellings makes a very important point here, one that I have made ad nauseum: Government control of education is almost always driven by political, not educational, concerns, which is why we spend tons of money on education and get almost no positive return on it. But if Spellings truly recognizes and believes this, how can she continue to support NCLB or any other government control of education? After all, as long as government controls schooling, politicians will control it, guaranteeing that politics, not kids, will almost always come first.

The answer, of course, is that Spellings and her boss are politicians; government provides their jobs and their identities, and they are just as interested in quick fixes and whatever works best for them politically as any other of their ilk. Spellings’ speech, with all its lovely, inspirational—but ultimately empty and deceptive—platitudes, illustrates this brilliantly, as does the politically unbeatable name of her beloved law. I mean, if you’re against No Child Left Behind you want to leave kids behind, right?

NCLB, like everything else run by government, is by its very nature politicized. That’s why we need to stop listening to any and all politicians who promise to fix education through more government, and demand the one thing that will actually rip away paralyzing politics: Getting government out of education.

Training Economic Illiterates in France and Germany

A fascinating Foreign Policy article explores the anti-capitalist propaganda that is force-fed to students in France and Germany. Recalling the glorification of the New Deal that I was exposed to during my younger years and the environmental nonsense my kids deal with (even in private schools!) on a frequent basis, I know American students also get some statist misinformation, but the article makes it appear that American textbooks are written by Friedman, Hayek, and Mises compared to what passes for economic education in Europe:

Millions of children are being raised on prejudice and disinformation. Educated in schools that teach a skewed ideology, they are exposed to a dogma that runs counter to core beliefs shared by many other Western countries. …Just as schools teach a historical narrative, they also pass on “truths” about capitalism, the welfare state, and other economic principles that a society considers self-evident. In both France and Germany, for instance, schools have helped ingrain a serious aversion to capitalism. In one 2005 poll, just 36 percent of French citizens said they supported the free-enterprise system, the only one of 22 countries polled that showed minority support for this cornerstone of global commerce. In Germany, meanwhile, support for socialist ideals is running at all-time highs—47 percent in 2007 versus 36 percent in 1991.

Many of these popular attitudes can be traced to state-mandated curricula in schools. It is there that economic lessons are taught that diverge substantially from the market-based principles on which the Western model is based. The phenomenon may hardly be unique to Europe, but in few places is it more obvious than in France and Germany. A biased view of economics feeds into many of the world’s most vexing problems, from the growth of populism to the global rise of anti-American, anti-capitalist attitudes.

The past 20 years have “doubled wealth, doubled unemployment, poverty, and exclusion, whose ill effects constitute the background for a profound social malaise,” the text continues. Because the 21st century begins with “an awareness of the limits to growth and the risks posed to humanity [by economic growth],” any future prosperity “depends on the regulation of capitalism on a planetary scale.” Capitalism itself is described at various points in the text as “brutal,” “savage,” “neoliberal,” and “American.” This agitprop was published in 2005, not in 1972. When French students are not getting this kind of wildly biased commentary on the destruction wreaked by capitalism, they are learning that economic progress is also the root cause of social ills. …Germans teach their young people a similar economic narrative, with a slightly different emphasis. The focus is on instilling the corporatist and collectivist traditions of the German system.

Bosses and company owners show up in caricatures and illustrations as idle, cigar-smoking plutocrats, sometimes linked to child labor, Internet fraud, cell-phone addiction, alcoholism, and, of course, undeserved layoffs. The successful, modern entrepreneur is virtually nowhere to be found. German students will be well-versed in many subjects upon graduation; one topic they will know particularly well is their rights as welfare recipients.

The not-so-subtle subtext? Jobs are a right to be demanded from the government. The same chapter also details various welfare programs.

Like many French and German books, this text suggests students learn more by contacting the antiglobalization group Attac, best known for organizing messy protests at the annual G-8 summits. One might expect Europeans to view the world through a slightly left-of-center, social-democratic lens. The surprise is the intensity and depth of the anti-market bias being taught in Europe’s schools. Students learn that private companies destroy jobs while government policy creates them. Employers exploit while the state protects. Free markets offer chaos while government regulation brings order.

…training the next generation of citizens to be prejudiced against being enterprising and productive is…foolhardy. …If countries like France and Germany hope to get their nations on a new economic track, they might start paying more attention to what their kids are learning in the classroom.

It’s NCLB’s Birthday, and You Can Cry if You Want To

Tomorrow is No Child Left Behind’s birthday, but what do you get for the law that’s done nothing? Barely a month ago, two separate sets of international test results were released, allowing us to see how U.S. academic performance has changed since the law was enacted. Across grades and subjects, student achievement has either stagnated or declined – that’s despite the infusion of tens of billions of dollars of new spending in each of the past six years. 

The tests were PIRLS (Program on International Reading Literacy Survey) and PISA (Program on International Student Assessment). For the gory details, please see my summary of the results here.

What do you get for the sixth birthday of a law that’s done nothing? Repeal.

Mike Huckabee on Education

Iowa Republican caucus winner Mike Huckabee has a lot to say about education policy, much of it contradictory. Asked to point to the spot in the Constitution authorizing a federal role in education [hint: there is none] Huckabee responded “I don’t think there is really a federal role or responsibility, constitutionally, in education.” We have a winner!

But wait, there’s more. Huckabee continued: “I think if there’s a role [uh, you just said there isn’t one…], it is to encourage, it’s to recognize the value and importance.” What might this mean, you ask? Apparently, it means that the federal government should perpetuate the No Child Left Behind act (with some unspecified revisions), continue to operate a cabinet level education department, promote arts instruction, and use extortion to pressure state governments to act in accordance with its dictates (that is, collect taxes from every state for education but only return those dollars in the form of federal grants to states that “voluntarily” decide to follow federal rules.)

I wonder what gov. Huckabee would have the feds do if he thought the Constitution did delegate them any authority in education?