Topic: Education and Child Policy

Cracking the Code on “Villainous” School Choice

Yesterday, over at The Huffington Post, education blogger Dan Brown – no relation to The Da Vinci Code’s author – posted a little homage to Democratic presidential candidates who have repudiated the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), toned down calls for teacher merit pay, and declared that all educators should be paid more. In other words, Mr. Brown praised candidates who boldly offered the same old, failed, “more money, thank you,” approaches to education reform we’ve been taking for decades. (NCLB is directly from that mold, but that’s not why Brown objected to it.) Indeed, Brown wrote that any presidential candidate who touted such bankrupt ideas is “inherently a champion of social justice.”

The absurdity of such over-the-top accolades, of course, deserves criticism. More galling, though, is how Brown characterized reforms that would lead to actual, transformative change:

If a candidate abdicates his responsibility to public education by offering superficial band-aids, or even worse, villainous profit-driven proposals like vouchers and privatization, then his true colors are seen.

“Villainous” school choice? Oh, come now, Mr. Brown! Advocating policies that have kept millions of poor kids trapped in bad schools while spending ever-greater sums of taxpayer money and protecting even atrocious teachers is the pinnacle of nobility, but parent-empowering school choice is villainous? It’s evil to let parents and children out of jail by enabling them to make their own educational decisions, but enlightened to keep them locked up and pay their jailers more?

One might not like school choice, but calling it villainous? Such dramatic, black-and-white characterizations might work for the other Dan Brown, but when it comes to educational reality, they just don’t make any sense.

A Textbook Example of Government Failure

DCPS superintendent Michelle Rhee is doing a heroic job trying to get textbooks into classrooms by the start of school. One problem is that school officials still can’t tell her how many books they actually need. Classes start on Monday. 

Is the problem insufficient funding? As it happens, DCPS’s total gross budget for the last school year was upwards of one billion dollars according to its own website, and its enrollment was about 52,000 students. That means DCPS had total per pupil spending of nearly $20,000 last year, or half a million dollars per class of 25 students. You’d think that would cover books. 

The District’s perennial problem with getting books into students’ hands is a great illustration of what’s wrong with the status quo. When was the last time you walked into a Barnes and Noble or a Borders bookstore in mid August and didn’t see a well-stocked “back to school” display? Why is it so easy for them to handle inventory issues when they don’t even know how many customers they are going to have, while DCPS is flummoxed, year after year, despite having a fairly accurate enrollment number up front?  

The reason is simple: if you’re a bookseller, and you don’t have the books people want to buy on your shelves… they shop somewhere else. Keep that up for a few weeks or months and your bookshop is history. The reason DCPS can keep limping along despite doing such a poor job is that it doesn’t face real competition for that $20,000 per pupil per year in guaranteed funding. Sure, there are charter schools, but places there are limited. Sure, there’s a private school voucher program, but it’s even tinier. DC schools will start demonstrating the efficiency and quality of a competitive business when they start having to compete for the privilege of serving District children. Until then, it simply does not matter how intelligent or dedicated the superintendent happens to be. The central problem is the uncompetitive design of the system itself, not the people in it.

The State Lives up to its Name

There’s a new report out arguing that even a modest school choice program in South Carolina that improved access to private schools would reduce the dropout rate and lead to significant savings for taxpayers. In covering that study, SC’s State newspaper tells us that

The dominant public education policy debate in the Legislature since 2004 has been whether the state can afford to provide incentives to parents who want to send children to private schools….

Two obvious implications of this sentence are that a school choice program would provide a net fiscal incentive for parents to choose private schools, and that it would add to the net cost of education in SC. Both are false.

At the moment, SC provides an enormous incentive for parents to choose public schooling over private schooling. It spends roughly $10,000 of compulsory tax dollars per pupil per year on families who choose public schools, and nothing on families who choose private schools. The tax credit programs that have been suggested in SC would only moderately reduce that existing incentive to choose public schools. The net financial incentive under such programs would STILL be to choose a public school, because the funding available per pupil would remain larger. 

And, as Clemson professor Cotton Lindsay’s fiscal analyses of the SC tax credit proposals showed (see here and here), the programs would actually have saved taxpayers money. Those reported savings, by the way, did not count the fiscal benefit of reducing the dropout rate, which was the subject of the recent State story. So, in fact, the total savings would likely be larger than Lindsay estimated.

Too much to ask that a newspaper called The State would correctly inform readers of these points?

Giuliani Is Half-Right on School Choice

Presidential contender Rudy Giuliani has just told an audience in New Hampshire that he supports competition and parental choice in education, including government-funded school vouchers. “I’d give parents control over their children’s education,” he told the crowd.

Real consumer choice and competition among schools aren’t just good ideas — they’re essential if we are ever going to see the kind of progress and innovation in education that we’ve seen in every other field over the past few centuries. But if Rudy is saying he’d back a federal school choice program, he’s got the right idea at the wrong level of government.

As someone who touts the merits of limited government, Giuliani should heed the Tenth Amendment, which reserves to the states and the people powers that they have not delegated to Washington in the Constitution. Last time I checked, neither the word “education” nor the word “school” appears anywhere in that document. 

I’ve made the broader case against federal school choice programs already, and the same arguments still apply.

An ardently pro–school choice president could do wonders to encourage states to adopt meaningful market reforms in education without usurping a power that does not belong in Washington’s hands. America could really use such an “education president.” It doesn’t need an “education king.”

A Fine Day

Today, U.S. News and World Report released its annual college guide, and I for one think it’s great. Sure, the rankings offer far from the definitive, final word about what college any given student should choose, and there could be thousands of credible methods used for evaluating schools other than what U.S. News does, but the magazine’s guide is still a valuable, market-driven tool to help parents and students choose from among thousands of U.S. colleges.

And, despite the complaints of opportunistic politicians about a supposed vacuum of data to help parents and students navigate higher education, if one is unhappy with U.S. News there are sundry other resources available, including the Princeton Review, the Kaplan College Guide, the College Prowler, the Gourman Report, and many, many more.

And so I say, “Hooray, the U.S. News rankings are out! Viva la U.S. News rankings!”

He Who Pays the Sociologist Calls the Tune

Sociologists from around the country have gathered for the annual American Sociological Association conference, and apparently they’re running scared. At least, according to an article appearing in Inside Higher Ed, many are running from research described best using such words as “sex” and “incestuous.” Apparently, having such words in the description of one’s research has been known to draw the ire of conservative activists, and has occasionally placed National Institutes of Health funding in jeopardy.

The problem, of course, is that as much as sociologists might love free money, NIH funding ultimately comes from taxpayers, and – surprise! – some taxpayers actually want a say in how their money is used. And, no, just because someone’s a scientist doesn’t give him the right to do whatever he wants with someone else’s hard-earned ducats. Of course, it can be very hard to examine really controversial issues if everyone gets a say in what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

Which leads to the only logical solution to the problem: If social science work – or any controversial scientific work, for that matter – is going to be done right, it cannot be conducted through the wallets of taxpayers. Just as scientists need the consent of human subjects to conduct experiments on them, they must have the consent of their funders if they want to be left alone. Which leaves sociologists with an important decision to make: Do they want to conduct science free of political interference, or sell out for the promise of abundant government grants? Unfortunately, right now the latter seems to be the more popular choice.

…or Sometimes as Tragedy and Farce

“History repeats itself: first as tragedy then as farce,” according to Karl Marx. Not to be outdone, Congress and the president have gone Karl one better by managing both at once.

The “America Competes Act,” signed into law today by President Bush, is pungently reminiscent of the National Defense Education Act of 1958, passed during the techno-existential crisis that followed the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite.

The impact of the NDEA was slight. Adoption of new federally-sponsored curricula and teaching methods was slow and uneven, and the bureaucratic process through which the money was allocated did a predictably bad job of weeding out good scientific instruction programs from bad ones — so it isn’t clear that faster or broader adoption would have been desirable.

In addition to repeating that earlier mistake, the “America Competes Act” is also deeply ironic — its methods run precisely counter to its motivations. Spurred by the necessity of keeping up with foreign competitors in our global economy, Congress has decided to resort to central planning. What they have given us, in other words, is the “America Competes Via Central Planning Act.”

There is a painfully obvious, irony-free alternative: We can increase our global competitiveness in education by forcing all schools to compete for the privilege of serving each and every student. America, more than any other nation in history, has proven that market competition drives up quality and drives down costs across the entire economy. And yet, in the area of education, we remain unconsciously but inextricably wedded to a Marxist approach, despite overwhelming evidence of its inferiority.

It is as though Congress, like “international man of mystery” Austin Powers, has just awoken after sleeping in suspended animation since the 1960s, unaware of how the Cold War turned out.

Basil Expedition:  The Cold War is over!
Austin Powers:  Well!  Finally those capitalistic pigs will pay for their crimes, eh? Eh comrades? Eh?
Basil Expedition:  Austin… we won.
Austin Powers:  Oh, groovy, smashing!  Yay capitalism!

Uh, Congress? We won, and market forces work as well in education as in every other field.