Topic: Education and Child Policy

Ivory Tower Can’t Blame State Taxpayers

In a House Education and Labor Committee hearing yesterday, higher education experts asserted that schools have had to constantly raise tuition well in excess of inflation because states keep short-changing them on funds. Indeed, Cal State Long Branch President F. King Alexander suggested that in order to rein in costs, Washington should cut higher ed funding to states that cut their own funding. In other words, he said that the feds should only lavish more taxpayer money on universities in states that themselves lavish more taxpayer money on them.

The problem with the “states are cheap” argument is that it’s utterly false. Public college prices have risen at the same time that state and local funding has grown.

Let’s look at absolute state and local funding. Using the latest available federal data and adjusting for inflation, state and local spending rose from $40.1 billion in the 1980-81 academic year to $69.9 billion in 2000-01, a 74 percent increase. According to data from the College Board (figure 6 in the linked report), during that same period the inflation-adjusted published cost of tuition, fees, room and board (TFRB) at four-year public institutions rose from roughly $7,000 to about $10,000, a 43 percent increase. So prices at public institutions rose at the same time state and local appropriations were increasing.

Perhaps, though, funding is a problem of reductions in spending per-pupil. Perhaps state and local support has risen, but not kept up with increasing enrollment. Using data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers (figure 3 in the linked report) we see that there is a little more support for the ivory tower’s complaint that schools just don’t get enough public funding — but not much more. State and local appropriations are clearly cyclical, rising as a result of good economic times and decreasing in response to bad. But it is also clear that there has not been a general decline in state and local funding per-pupil. Indeed, in the 1980-81 to 2001-01 period we explored earlier, the SHEEO data show that inflation-adjusted public funding per full-time equivalent student rose from $6,517 to about $7,371, a 13 percent increase.

So what does all this tell us? Pretty simply, the same thing former Harvard University President Derek Bok wrote in his book Universities in the Marketplace: “Universities share one characteristic with compulsive gamblers and exiled royalty: there is never enough money to satisfy their desires.” Including, especially, taxpayer money.

In Utah, You Work for the UEA

On November 6, Utahns will vote on a referendum to decide the fate of a statewide voucher program passed by the Utah legislature and signed by the governor earlier this year. As anyone who knows anything about public schooling would have predicted, the major force fighting against choice has been teacher unions, with the National Education Association (NEA) having donated at least $1.5 million to date to the anti-choice cause. And, as this article in yesterday’s Salt Lake Tribune makes clear, defeating choice is an obsession for the state’s NEA affiliate, the Utah Education Association (UEA). Of course it is, because monopolists will stop at nothing to protect their monopoly. But this begs a question to which almost everyone must already know the answer, but many just won’t admit it: Who really works for whom? Do public school teachers work for the public, or does the public really work—and pay taxes—for the teachers?

The answer is all too clear, and that alone ought to make people in Utah, and around the country, support as much school choice as they can get.

Slaughterhouse of Dreams

More than one in ten public high schools in America is a “dropout factory” according to an analysis by education researcher Bob Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University. At these schools, dropping out is the norm, not the exception, and their record of sky high dropout rates is consistent over time.

What can be done about it? The most obvious solution, to anyone familiar with school choice research, is to stop assigning students to these slaughterhouses of dreams, and stop sending tax dollars to them so that they can continue apace with their grizzly work. Instead, make it possible for all families to afford the schools of their choice, public or private.

Economist Derek Neal has shown that in urban areas, where most “dropout factories” are located, Catholic schools do a far better job keeping kids in school. African American students benefit the most. After controlling for differences in student background between the sectors, minority Catholic students had an 88 percent high school graduation rate, compared to just 62 percent for similar students in public schools. In other words, black students attending Catholic schools are almost one-and-a-half-times as likely to graduate as their public school peers. Still more impressive, these gains persisted through to college. Catholic school students were two-and-a-half-times as likely to graduate from college as similar public school students.

Jay Greene has found similarly favorable results for private schools (.pdf) in Milwaukee’s school choice program.

So let’s stop herding children into failing schools. Let’s give them a choice and a far better shot at educational success.

Get Middle-Class Mediocrity for Record-High Prices!

Expensive homes mean an expensive, but not necessarily a good education.

The Wall Street Journal reports on a great new book from the Pacific Research Institute, Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle-Class Needs School Choice. It’s packed with great statistics on under-performing, over-priced schools in some of the wealthiest California districts and case studies on fiscal mismanagement normally associated with big city schools. The findings are eye-opening, as the WSJ reports:

At Dos Pueblos High School in ritzy Santa Barbara, only 28% of high school juniors tested college-ready for English in 2006, slightly better than the 23% of students who did so at San Marin High School in Marin County, where the median home price recently hit $1 million.

That’s just a taste of the dirt they dug up with widely available information. And other state think-tanks can get a lot of mileage with the same model.

Kudos to PRI for advancing the argument for school choice with the middle class and up … that’s where the battle for educational freedom will be won or lost, and the school choice movement has largely failed to speak to middle-class concerns like the rising tide of mediocrity and skyrocketing property taxes that support over-funded and horribly inefficient and under-performing suburban school districts.

PRI’s not-much-bang-per-buck argument is particularly likely to resonate with the crucial two-thirds of the electorate that doesn’t have school-aged children but gets slammed in taxes for the schools. This constituency is typically left out of parent-centric arguments for school choice, but non-parents are the key to expanding school choice.

Mitt: Educational Marxist?

According to MSNBC, yesterday GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney called Hillary Clinton a Marxist, remarking that “she said we’ve always been an on-your-own society…we should be a we’re-all-in-it-together society, a shared responsibility society. So it’s out with Adam Smith and in with Karl Marx.”

Romney might be right about Hillary Clinton, but based on several things he’s said recently about education, one can’t help but wonder if there’s not a fair bit of Big Brother in him, too.

At the same event where Romney attacked collectivist Hillary, for instance, he lauded the intrusive, federal No Child Left Behind Act. He likes the testing, he said, apparently not caring that it’s mandated by the central government. Even scarier, he endorsed a national program requiring that “before a parent can send a child to school for the first time, they’ve got to go to a weekend where they learn about being prepared to support their child in school.”

To top all this off, yesterday the Associated Press reported that Romney has floated the idea of rewarding college aid based on what careers recipients choose. “I like the idea of linking the level of support that we’re able to provide to young people going to college to the contributions they’re going to make to our society.” So not only is Romney going to keep NCLB and force moms and dads into government parenting academies, he’s going to engineer who gets what based, apparently, on how much government decides different jobs contribute to society?

Maybe Hillary isn’t the only closet Marxist in the 2008 race.

The Political Possibility Delusion

Today the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation – a neo-con education think tank – released The Proficiency Illusion, a report detailing how low many states have set their “proficiency” standards under the No Child Left Behind Act. As discovered before, Fordham finds that many states set “proficiency” at surface-scraping levels, most likely in an effort to avoid sanctions under the law, or even more likely, just so their leaders can continue to tell their citizens “don’t worry, everything’s fine.”

Yesterday, I wrote about Diane Ravitch’s assault on NCLB in the New York Times, and took major issue with only one thing that she called for: national standards. Well, the Fordham folks make the same proposal, suggesting that it’s insane that we have no, single, curricular standard:

First, it’s crazy not to have some form of national standards for educational achievement—stable, reliable, cumulative, and comparable. That doesn’t mean Uncle Sam should set them, but if Uncle Sam is going to push successfully for standards-based reform he cannot avoid the responsibility of ensuring that they get set.

Now, forget for a second that the Fordham folks are saying that Uncle Sam needn’t set national standards but that it should set them all the same. What’s more important is that Fordham fails to address the same unavoidable problem that Ravitch missed: As long as government controls education, political forces will ensure that standards stay low and easy to meet. It is, simply, the absolutely inescapable conclusion one reaches after examining the history of public schooling generally, and the 40-plus years of federal involvement. Indeed, the No Child Left Behind Act and consistently bankrupt state standards prove this beyond a doubt, yet some conservatives still push for national standards, ignoring political reality and forgetting all the progressive educator, teacher union, and other special interest domination of education conservatives have been complaining about for decades.

The history of American education proves one thing: When government runs education, education works for the people in government, not parents and children. That’s why any national standards adopted by government – whether Uncle Sam or some consortium of states – are doomed to failure, and why the only way to get high standards – and critical competition and innovation to boot – is universal school choice.

It’s time for big government conservatives to accept political reality, forget about hopeless national standards, and put all their energy into giving parents – not politicians – the real power in education.