Topic: Education and Child Policy

What They Say It Does

Over at Eduwonk, there’s a little discussion about a finding in a new Education Next poll that 57 percent of Americans like the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and want it reauthorized more or less as-is. What interests the Wonk is that when NCLB is referred to simply as “federal legislation,” support rises to 71 percent:

What jumped out at me is how much language matters. If you ask people about a generic law that does what No Child Left Behind does they are more favorably disposed to it than if you ask them about “No Child Left Behind” specifically.

The Wonk is right – language does matter. But here’s the thing: The Education Next pollsters didn’t tell respondents what NCLB actually does, they very superficially told them what it is supposed to do: force “states to set standards in math and reading and to test students each year to determine whether the standards are being met.”

The language matters because many people aren’t all that familiar with the law, and many such folks would not oppose NCLB if they were told that all it does is require states to set standards and track student mastery of them. The reality, however, is that NCLB does a lot more than that, and is rife with problems that have made it a scourge in many people’s minds, including encouraging states to actually push standards down, not up.

It is perhaps that people have a general sense of how bad NCLB truly is, even if they can’t remember specific problems, that led to a June Educational Testing Service finding that, when asked for their views about NCLB without being given any description of the law, only 41 percent of respondents favored NCLB, while 43 percent viewed it unfavorably. Unfortunately, ETS went on to ask the question with a description even more candy-coated than Education Next’s, raising favorable responses to 56 percent. The public’s true feelings about NCLB were, nonetheless, clear: when not biased by loaded descriptions, Americans simply do not much care for the No Child Left Behind Act.

What Could Huge Waiting Lists Mean?

An article in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times provides some very telling statistics about educational demand in the City of Angels. To get into L.A.’s magnet schools, there is a waiting list of over 28,000 students!  For admission to charter schools run by the Inner City Education Foundation, the waiting list tops 5,000! And it’s not just magnets and Inner City Education Foundation schools that have waiting lists – most charter schools in the district, according to the article, are over-subscribed.

What does this mean? For one thing, that Angelenos would love to leave the public schools to which they are assigned. Perhaps more importantly, though, it demonstrates that quasi-public schools like charters and magnets – which require approval of government entities to exist – will never be able to meet the huge demand for good schools that’s boiling over nationwide. School districts and state education departments that approve charters and magnets are simply too dominated by special interests such as teacher unions – which love the public school monopoly – to ever permit enough real choice to satisfy monopoly-busting demand. Of course, even if an explosion of magnets and charters were allowed, the bureaucratic hoops through which school founders would have to jump would almost certainly ensure that new schools would never pop up fast enough to meet growing demand, nor would schools be able to alter their offerings quickly enough to provide for ever-changing educational needs.

What this means, then, is one thing: Without full school choice, in which public education funding is controlled by parents and schools must respond to their demands, a whole lot of people will never be able to access the schools their children need. The failed system will simply never allow it.

It’s a New York Sunny Day

Thanks to an editorial this morning championing school choice, the New York Sun has become the first major paper in the country to simultaneously recognize that a) education markets work, and 2) education policy — including market-based reform — is a matter for the states and the people, not the federal government.

Having spent a lot of time banging away on these messages, I’ve gotta say this makes my week.

Here’s hoping that the Sun’s illumination shines on former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and the rest of the presidential contenders.

‘God Created Man on Friday’

The title quote is from a language textbook soon to be used in a bilingual Hebrew-English charter school in Florida. Many other religiously themed passages also appear in the book, though they are to be used for translation rather than devotional purposes. Is this constitutional?

Probably, but it’s hard to say. What can be said for sure is that it already has been and will continue to be a source of controversy in the community. This is yet another reason why charter schools do not go far enough on the path to educational freedom.

 So long as all taxpayers are compelled to fund a school, that school must dilute its curriculum to a lowest common denominator: it must contain nothing truly objectionable to any organized interest group, or it will be the subject of contention and quite often litigation. For a full discussion of the social conflicts caused by conventional public schools, please Neal McCluskey’s fascinating paper “Why We Fight.”

Fortunately, there is a simple alternative to charter schools that provides freedom of choice not just to parents but to taxpayers as well: education tax credits. As I’ve previously discussed here and here, non-refundable education tax credits do not constitute public funding and can allow universal access to the educational marketplace without forcing people to subsidize education that they find morally objectionable.

So for anyone who is truly concerned with separation of church and state, and with minimizing social conflict, education tax credits are the answer. To claim that these religious and social concerns are one’s reasons for objecting to school choice while ignoring the tax credit solution is either lazy or disingenuous.

The Futility of Government Education Standards

Parents want to know how well prepared their children are academically. Employers want to know what job applicants know. Educational standards and testing are thus useful tools. Leaping from that fact to the belief that state or federal government should impose a single set of standards or tests on all students is utterly unjustified.

When the government imposes, for instance, a high-school leaving test that students must pass in order to graduate, one of two things happens: the test is watered down to the point of meaninglessness to ensure that virtually every student receives a diploma, or the test is deferred or eliminated to ensure that every student receives a diploma.

The latter course was adopted by Washington state several months ago, and by Texas two days ago. Once a government gets into the business of handing out diplomas, it is compelled by political expediency to ensure that virtually all students are awarded diplomas. You can’t get re-elected if voters think that you’ve ruined their children’s career prospects by denying them a government diploma.

Most people want to know how well students are actually performing, especially at the end of high school, but government diplomas cannot tell us that because they must be easy enough for virtually everyone to obtain.

There is an obvious solution to this dilemma: get the government out of the diploma business. While it is important for diplomas to be meaningful, to connote some specific set of skills and body of knowledge, it is not necessary for every student to earn precisely the same diploma, or for diplomas to be awarded by the government. The private sector handles knowledge certification all the time. In the computer industry, for instance, database and networking companies certify workers as competent to use their products. These certifications are meaningful, but different from one another.

Diplomas that connote more advanced skills in a wider range of subjects would be more difficult to obtain, but would have more value in the eyes of employers and institutions of higher education. Every student could seek to obtain the most advanced diploma he or she is capable of attaining, and hence diplomas would become a useful source of information about a student’s competencies. Diplomas could be awarded by individual schools or by educational certification agencies. There is no need for the government to get involved. In fact, government involvement, as noted above, would muck up the process.

Government intervention in any industry is fraught with unintended consequences, and this is true most of all in education, the field into which governments have intruded most aggressively.

Takeover Accomplished!

Yesterday, Democrats made good on their promise to transform the U.S. House of Representatives from what they said had been a wholly-owned subsidiary of student lending companies under Republicans, into a wholly owned subsidiary of middle- and upper-middle-class freeloaders under them.

By a 273 to 149 vote, the House passed the College Cost Reduction Act of 2007. Its good side is that it would cut several subsidies to lenders in federal loan programs, supposedly saving about $19 billion. The bad part is how it would use those savings. If enacted, the bill would modestly increase Pell Grants – which is not good news if you dislike taxpayer-dollar giveaways, though at least Pell is somewhat geared toward the truly needy – but would focus most benefits on loan programs utilized much more by the financially able. (See table 5 of this report to see loan utilization by family income.)

Indeed, the bill would cut in half – to a tiny 3.4 percent in five years – interest rates on subsidized student loans, and offer $5,000 in loan forgiveness to public servants ranging from police all the way to – get this – prosecutors! That is, it would offer $5,000 until those people had been in their jobs for ten years, at which point the entire remainder of their loans would go bye-bye, eaten by taxpayers who themselves get, approximately, nothing out of this bill.

Needless to say, professional advocates for college kids with huge senses of entitlement – like these guys, these folks, and this gal – are ecstatic about this transfer from one group of thieves to another. As for me, I’m just sorry that it’s too late for poor, common-good-obsessed prosecutors like this guy to have his loans forgiven. Oh, and this famous public servant, too.

How Schooling Affects Culture

Cato’s Brink Lindsey has a good essay in today’s WSJ on how cultural differences between communities (from child-rearing to views and expectations on education) widen America’s socioeconomic gap. The one point where I diverge from Brink is that I am far more sanguine about the feasibility of reducing the cultural gaps that exacerbate the socioeconomic gap. The key is to understand that our educational institutions actually shape our culture.

Our monopoly school system has gradually marginalized parents, removing from them any significant responsibility for deciding where, what, how, when, and by whom their children are taught. This usurpation of traditional parental responsibilities has not only facilitated but fomented an unprecedented level of disengagement from their children’s education. Responsibilities breed responsibility. Powerlessness breeds apathy and disengagement.

When parents are actively involved in choosing their children’s schools, and when they have some measure of financial responsibility for their children’s education, they take a more active role, they are more satisfied with their children’s education, and their children’s achievement and attainment goes up. The most dramatic findings come from the areas most in need of improvement: our inner cities. University of Chicago economist Derek Neal has shown that urban black students attending Catholic schools are far more likely to graduate from high-school, be accepted to college, and graduate from college than similar students who attend government schools. That and other relevant research is digested and linked to here.

Replacing our dependency-producing school monopoly with a free education market that requires all parents to choose their children’s schools, and requires all parents to contribute something to the cost of their own children’s education (in kind rather than cash, where necessary), would not simply minimize the damage done by America’s culture gap. It would significantly shrink that gap, because it would compel parents to once again take a more active role in their children’s education. “Free” monopoly schooling isn’t merely inefficient, it is socially destructive.