Topic: Education and Child Policy

Could We Just Get One Thing Straight?

John McCain has done a pretty good job of making school choice at least the rhetorical center of his education plan. He has also been fairly clear that spending is not the key to educational effectiveness. Too bad he hasn’t gotten the latter message to his running mate.

“I say, too, with education, America needs to be putting a lot more focus on that and our schools have got to be really ramped up in terms of the funding that they are deserving,” declared Governor Palin, painfully, last night.

Could we please put this underfunding myth to rest? Real, per-pupil expenditures in American public elementary and secondary schools have more than doubled since 1970, ballooning from $5,393 in the 1970-71 school year to $11,470 in 2004-05 (the latest year available). In 2005, we spent more, adjusted for purchasing power, per primary-school pupil than all but two industrialized nation (Iceland and Luxembourg) and per secondary-school pupil than three nations (Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Norway). Yet, we get results like these! No wonder in 2003 OECD education director Barry McGaw concluded that “there are countries which don’t get the bang for the bucks, and the U.S. is one of them.”

Keep on repeating the myth, and the bang will only get quieter.

Strong American Schools, We Hardly Knew Ye

It was recently announced that Strong American Schools, the group founded by magnates Bill Gates and Eli Broad to put education high on the presidential-election docket, will die in March. It will, in all likelihood, expire in relative anonymity. 

The initiative’s biggest problem has been having to compete against behemoths like war and Wall Street for headlines–a struggle education couldn’t possibly win–but as I wrote back in May, the group also hasn’t offered anything new or noteworthy, a sure way to go unnoticed. Top-down, “government should do more of x” reforms just don’t fire anyone’s imagination because, well, that’s what we’ve been doing for decades and things just haven’t gotten much better.

And so, Strong American Schools, you will be missed…but not for very long.

The Truth Isn’t out There

Because I work on federal education policy, I receive a steady stream of emails from the White House Office of Public Liaison (read: Office of Spin) suggesting that the No Child Left Behind Act is saving American education. Today, only moments after I’d read the story on the Washington Post’s website, the OPL folks sent me an “in case you missed it” copy of a Post report suggesting that thanks to NCLB, achievement scores for low-income kids in some DC suburbs have increased:

Since enactment of the No Child Left Behind law, students from poor families in the Washington area have made major gains on reading and math tests and are starting to catch up with those from middle-class and affluent backgrounds….The achievement gap between economic groups, long a major frustration for educators, has narrowed in the region’s suburban schools since President Bush signed the law in 2002, according to Maryland and Virginia test data.

It’s entirely possible, I should make clear, that achievement gaps on Virginia and Maryland tests have closed. The problem is, it’s not possible to attribute such changes to NCLB, because so many other factors than the law—changing demographics, state reforms, etc.—could have been at work. And that’s not the biggest problem with dubbing NCLB a savior. The biggest problem is that states have been changing their own tested populations, test content, cut scores, and other important testing variables throughout the NCLB era, rendering truly comparable scores a seriously threatened species.

For well-documented evidence of this, check out the Center on Education Policy’s compilation of state-testing policies and outcomes. CEP has files for every state, and to get through them all requires a fair amount of downloading and scrolling. Examining each state’s “major changes in testing system,” however, will reward the effort, as will taking in the trends of comparable results from year to year. Bottom line: You can tell almost nothing about outcomes under NCLB because so many state testing systems have been significantly altered—and re-altered, and altered again—during the NCLB era.

That said, there is a bit of good news for Maryland: The state has comparable data generally going back to 2004—a pretty abbreviated trend line, but not the shortest of any state—and the percentage of kids overall hitting “proficiency” seems to be going up. That might still reflect test questions getting easier, better test “gaming” by teachers, and other less-obvious changes than new cut scores or completely new tests, but at least it’s a few years of general comparability and improvement.

For Virginia, there is no NCLB Santa Clause: The state has only two years of comparable data, and while the percentage of kids hitting proficiency rose between 2006 and 2007, it’s not nearly enough info to identify any kind of a trend.

So here’s the overall NCLB story based on what can reliably be reported: When it comes to the law’s effectiveness, it seems the truth, no matter what is proclaimed, isn’t really out there.

If Anyone Blames the Market, I Swear I’ll…

Right now, it’s very popular with politicians to blame the free market for our mortgage-driven economic woes. It’s also, as with most things popular among politicians, utter nonsense: Fannie and Freddie are Dr. Washington’s monsters, and DC has practically forced lenders to float loans to high-risk borrowers.

Of course, it’s not just in mortgages that the feds have been superheating the market, only to proclaim that they’re saving it every time they do something that will just make matters worse. They’ve been doing that in higher education for decades, delivering or guaranteeing loans targeted at high-risk borrowers, and the current credit “crisis” has done nothing to curb their enthusiasm. Heck, it’s emboldened them to do more.

You might recall something I wrote back in April about the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act, a fast-moving piece of legislation intended to shield any college student from the possibility that he or she might not be able to get a loan. Among other things, the act increased limits on several federal loans so that students could borrow even more, and loosened the eligibility guidelines for PLUS loans so that parents in significant mortgage arrears could still borrow college cash. It easily passed Congress, pushing significantly more money at ever-greater risks – and Congress has just extended it to 2010.

And people wonder why lenders make loans to obvious credit risks, and college costs keep on skyrocketing?

Unfortunately, some people in Washington never learn, or worse, know full well that pumping ever more money to big risks is a huge, dangerous distortion, and just don’t care. Case in point, this quote from Michael Dannenberg, senior fellow with the New America Foundation, lauding Senator Obama in a new AP article for proposing a new tax credit program—which includes a make-work “community service” payback piece—on top of all the other federal aid programs:

Michael Dannenberg, senior fellow with the New America Foundation and a former adviser to Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., says Obama’s proposals take the problem of college affordability more seriously than McCain’s. And he calls the tax credit a significant innovation.
“McCain’s message when it comes to increased tuition is, ‘You’re on your own,’” said Dannenberg, who has not worked for Obama’s campaign. “Obama’s message to families is, ‘We’ll give you more financial aid to help you with college costs, but your kids are going to have to help others.’”

Notice what taking a problem “seriously” means? Offering even more bankrupting government largesse! And who cares about the ultimate bill…until, that is, the reality of “no free lunch” ultimately forces it to come due.

In light of this, nobody, and I mean NOBODY, in Washington had better blame “market forces” for huge cost problems, inefficiencies, or just plain wasted money in higher education. Federal politicians, with their constant bribery of voters and special interests, have made our colossal financial messes, and they haven’t got a leg to stand on acting like they are the solution and freedom is the problem.

No Bailout Will Silence This!

Other than partying pirates holding thirty-some Russian tanks captive against an international armada of warships, the Big Abortive Bailout of Aught-Eight seems to have pushed every other news story out of the headlines. That’s almost certainly the case for education, where few stories are attracting much attention, and the edublogosphere has been eerily quiet.

Unfortunately for both the country and education-policy peeps, there’s a good chance our economic problems, and political efforts to make them worse, will continue to dominate our news for the foreseeable future. Thankfully, we here at Cato will be giving education a chance to get back on your mind, even if for just a few hours, bringing in a man whose ability to rile is not bound by anything as inconsequential as mere news! He is Charles Murray, and his new book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality, has been getting lots of people’s goats and just not letting go.

On Wednesday, October 8, Murray will be at Cato defending his book’s thesis that we all have different intellectual endowments, and only a relative few of us are well-served by a school system that shoves everyone into ivy-covered walls. Responding will be Christopher B. Nelson, president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, a school that features about as pure a liberal arts education—the kind of schooling Murray argues must of us don’t need—as you’ll find.

Bailouts, frankly, get pretty boring after awhile; Paulson this, $700 billion of your hard-earned tax dollars that, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But one thing that never gets dull is debating how best to educate our children. So register to hear Charles Murray today, and get ready to cogitate over something other than our economic mess—well, at least the immediate mess—come October 8.

All Are Welcome Aboard!

When I started reading AEI director of education policy studies Rick Hess’s latest article, I feared a Stern-esque public defection. “Oh no,” I thought. “He’s about to denounce school choice as a failure without any consideration for what it needs to work.” Then came the pleasant surprise: Hess makes clear that school choice hasn’t produced transformative competition and innovation because, so far, almost no competition or innovation has been allowed to occur.

Pointing to everything from enrollment caps, to profit prohibitions, to suffocating bureaucracy in choice vehicles ranging from charter schools to voucher programs, Hess concludes that “the lessons are increasingly clear. If school choice is to enjoy a brighter future than wave upon wave of supposed school reforms, it is time for reformers to fight not just for choice but for good choices.”

I couldn’t agree more, and want to be the first to welcome Hess aboard the good ship Free-Market Education! We here at Cato have been sailing it for some time now, and offer all kinds of guides for anyone who wants to cruise with us, including the Cato Education Market Index; Dismal Science: The Shortcomings of U.S. School Choice Research and How to Address Them; and Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence. We’d especially like to invite choice equalitarians to join us, those folks who want options for the poor but don’t see that choice’s real power can only be unleashed when schools are unfettered and choice widespread. Low barriers to entry for entrepreneurs, price change, the ability to make a profit, unsubsidized competition—all these things are critical to thriving industries that give us everything from iPods to dress shirts, but as scarce as Ecuadorean polar bears in moribund k-12 education. That’s not a coincidence.

Free markets work, Hess understands, but not when they’re in name only.

School Choice Talk

Thought people might be interested in a conversation I had yesterday with Norm Leahy of Tertium Quids, a free market issue-advocacy organization in Virginia, about school choice in that state and across the country.

More states are waking up to tax credits as the best bet for school choice; an education reform that saves kids, saves money, and has increasingly bipartisan support.