Topic: Education and Child Policy

Do Texas Taxpayers Get Longhorn Straight through the Middle?

Let me make one thing clear right off the bat (pun not intended): I’m a fan of college sports.

As I’ve written before, though, I have some problems with big-time college athletics because I think that private schools are at a huge disadvantage against public schools, if for no other reason than private school alumni donors have to spend their money on lots of their alma maters’ needs, academic and athletic, while state taxpayers take care of public schools’ academic stuff, letting alums focus on sports. (There are lots of other problems, but I’ll stick to my favorite for now.) A fascinating breakdown of athletics spending at the University of Texas in Sunday’s Austin-American Statesman illustrates just how excessive at least one public schools’ athletics budget can get, with UT set to spend $107.6 million on athletics this year, double what the school spent just six years ago. Of course, UT probably needs to fork out that much cash to make sure its football players have such things as a “lounge area with game tables, 125 personalized lockers for the players, five flat-screen TVs and a three-dimensional, lighted 20-foot Longhorn on the ceiling.”

Of course, none of this proves that Texas taxpayers are footing the academic bills so alums can focus on the thrill of victory, but there is nationwide evidence that such displacement might just be happening. As the American-Statesman notes:

Big-time sports can cost schools money in other ways, too. This spring, an analysis of Division I-A schools by the Journal of Sports Management found athletic department donations represent a larger and larger share of total university giving. “In some cases, the increase in athletics giving may be coming at the expense of academic gifts,” said co-author Jeffrey Stinson, a North Dakota State University marketing professor.

So, while we don’t know for sure from this article, it seems quite possible that, at least in part, Texas fans are able to cheer because Texas taxpayers are getting a longhorn straight through the middle.

Why We Fight Today… and Tomorrow?

Two news items highlight how divisive public schooling in the United States is today, and how much worse it could potentially be were we ever to adopt a national curriculum.

The first article tackles Banned Books Week, an event organized by the American Library Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other groups, that will feature readings all over the nation of controversial books like Judy Blume’s Forever and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War. According to the ALA, in 2006 there were over 546 challenges to books held in public and school libraries. Unfortunately, what the article neglects to mention is that in our public schools and libraries such battles are both inevitable and, no matter what the outcome, always result in the crushing of someone’s rights. As long as libraries are paid for by all taxpayers, all taxpayers have equal rights to demand both that the libraries carry the books they want and NOT carry material they find objectionable. One man’s book-banning battle is another’s revolt against compelled support of repugnant speech.

In Okinawa, Japan, the subject of the second article, we see just what kind of widespread acrimony a national curriculum can produce, again because all people are forced to support teachings imposed by the most politically powerful group, and because there is no alternative to government-sanctioned content, no matter how controversial that content might be. According to The Japan Times, on Saturday roughly 110,000 people rallied in Okinawa to protest a directive from Japan’s education ministry that history textbook publishers strike references in their books to military-imposed civilian suicides in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa. Were the United States ever to adopt a national history curriculum, imagine the fights we’d have over the treatment of race, religion, class, etc? And we don’t even have to think about something as inherently values-laden as history. Just look at the acrimony that’s accompanied our on-going “reading wars” and you can easily imagine the conflict any national standards would cause.

Tax and Spend 101

Today, as expected, President Bush signed the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which cuts subsidies to lenders in major federal student loan programs (good) but then directs almost all the savings to Pell Grant increases, interest rate cuts, and loan forgiveness for lendees in public service jobs (all bad). One major reason Bush likely signed the bill is offered in USA Today:

The action allows both the Bush administration and Congress to say they have done something to ease the burden of paying for college, a popular political priority.

Yup. While Bush has for a long time called for Pell Grant increases to help truly low-income students, he said he didn’t like much of the rest of the bill, which simply throws more money at often well-to-do students and graduates. It’s likely he ultimately signed the bill, then, because it’s politically popular.

Of course it is: The middle-class-and-above students and families who will largely reap the benefits of this redirection of taxpayer money from lenders to students are a big voting bloc. But not only is that a bad reason to support this legislation – get ready for the tuition increases that will inevitably swallow any new buying power – but signing this bill into law seems to be little more than a continuation of the big-government, big-spending profligacy that’s helped put the GOP in a minority position that seems likely to get even smaller come November 2008.

Test Score Story the Media Will Miss

The latest 4th and 8th grade test scores for “The Nation’s Report Card,” or National Assessment of Educational Progress, were released this morning. They show improvement in reading and math, particularly at the 4th grade.

The story that the media will report will revolve around claims by No Child Left Behind advocates that their law is responsible for these improvements. In reality, NCLB almost certainly has little to do with these results, since they simply continue patterns that date back at least to 1990 – a dozen years before the law was passed.

But that’s not the real story. The real story is that none of these improvements have been persisting through to the end of high school. What families and business leaders care about is how well students are prepared for life and work at the end of high school. As the NAEP Long Term Trend results show, the mathematics achievement of 17-year-olds has been flat since 1990, and their reading achievement has actually declined. In fact, achievement among 17-year-olds is flat or declining in math, reading, and science since the first NAEP tests were administered in the late 60s and early 70s – despite the fact that real spending has doubled to more than $11,000 per pupil over that period.

What that means is that the improvements in the earliest grades simply represent a shifting of when learning is happening, not an increase in what students ultimately learn. We are, in the hackneyed phrase, merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as it continues to slip beneath the waves.

That’s the sad but true story that the American people need to be told.

Potemkin School Reforms

Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, has a piece on New Orleans education reform in the current issue of Time. In describing a system of increased public school choice and charter schools he writes that it is “a voucher system in all but name that blows up the monopoly.”

If by “voucher system,” Mr. Isaacson means a system in which:

  • there are no market-determined prices (schooling is paid for entirely by the state and spending does not vary based on quality, demand, or any other market factor)
  • there are substantial barriers to the entry of new schools (the need to for a state charter)
  • schools can be closed for other than market reasons (charters are temporary and revocable)
  • for profit enterprise is inhibited (non-profit charter boards can contract out to for-profit management firms, but do so solely at their discretion, inhibiting expansion)
  • devotional religious school options are foreclosed

then, yes, you could call the N.O. model a “voucher system.” But to do so is to blur the distinction between a weak public school choice reform with only modest prospects and genuine market reforms which could spark the kind of innovation and excellence we have seen in every other sector of the economy over the past century.

Blurring that distinction is toxic to the school choice movement. If readers of Mr. Isaacson’s article take him at his word, and, five or ten years hence, fail to see dramatic results N.O., what will they conclude? They will conclude, mistakenly, that market reforms were tried and failed. In essence, Isaacson has built a straw man and given it to school choice critics to attack at their leisure.

So let us not use the word “voucher” to describe a hobbled public school choice program that does not even vaguely resemble the sort of free educational marketplace Milton Friedman had in mind when he wrote “On the Role of Government in Education” more than fifty years ago.

Legal Trends in Bioethics

Starting with the fall issue of The Journal of Clinical Ethics, my “Legal Trends in Bioethics” column will be available on the Cato website at time of publication instead of only several months later. That means the information provided will be more up-to-date and relevant for anyone interested in tracking legal issues in bioethics.

For those not familiar with the column, it tracks bioethics related issue through all stages of litigation, legislation, and regulation at both the federal and state levels, as well as occasionally mentioning exceptional legal developments in other countries. The topics covered are not always exactly the same, but usually there are sections on informed consent, abortion, children’s rights, vaccines, organ procurement, HIV, mental illness, medical privacy, unconventional treatment, right-to-die, stem-cell research and other new technologies, among other topics depending on what bioethics topics are of legal concern in the U.S.

The column tries to be comprehensive as far as reporting the most relevant developments at each level of government and in each topic area. It is a very useful tool for doing exactly what its name implies – tracking the “Legal Trends in Bioethics.” The following is the introduction to the fall column which will be published in The Journal Clinical Ethics and simultaneously become available on the Cato website next month:

The most troubling development in this quarter is the extent to which legislators continue to intervene in the patient/physician relationship by trying to regulate the relationship down to the smallest specifics of what is said and done. These developments are a great threat to both physician and patient autonomy, but while there have been many attempts to pass such invasive legislation, at this point, few of such bills have actually made it into law. It will be important to watch the next two issues of Legal Trends if someone is interested in seeing how many of such bills actually do end up as laws.

The issue of medical tourism is not new to bioethics, but it is on the brink of attracting more attention in U.S. courts and legislatures. There is no separate heading in “Legal Trends” for “medical tourism,” but it is important for anyone interested in the subject to regularly check the “Legal Trends’ subheading dealing with interesting developments in other countries. In this issue, for example, some Canadians are seeking a police investigation into an assisted suicide in Switzerland. Physician assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, but illegal in Canada. At issue is whether Canadians have a legal right under Canadian law to travel to Switzerland to avail themselves of a practice that is illegal in their own country. In the United States there is a constitutional right to travel which would make it legal for the patient seeking physician assisted suicide to go to Switzerland (there is no case directly on point but the basic principle is well-established in U.S. constitutional jurisprudence), but even in the U.S., as in Canada, it may be possible to prosecute someone who assists that person in getting to Switzerland. This could be considered aiding and abetting a suicide. The Canadian suit has not even been filed yet, and no such case exists in the U.S., but it is an interesting issue to watch. It may come up as it did in Canada with respect to traveling to Switzerland where it is legal for physicians to assist foreigners in committing suicide (this is not true in the Netherlands); it is also likely to come up in connection with people suffering from kidney disease traveling to Iran, the only country where it is legal to purchase kidneys, and in other situations where the legality of the activity is not the issue but the price of medical treatment.

The “Legal Trends” from earlier this year are available on the Cato website or directly from The Journal of Clinical Ethics.

From the Why We Fight File

In Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict, I explained that our public schooling system causes constant political and social battles because everyone, no matter what their values or educational goals, is forced to pay for the schools, but only the most politically powerful can control them. I also explained that the only viable way to defuse the situation is to give all parents school choice, so that they can take their children and the money intended to educate them to schools that share their values. Well, a story in this morning’s Chicago Tribune about a Windy City school engulfed in a battle over a required 7th grade reading book makes my point – and then some. Not only does it show the need to let parents choose their children’s schools because their values may differ, it also displays the arrogance that can come from school administrators who know that they have all the power:

Several dozen parents at a Southwest Side Chicago public school are calling for school officials to ban a controversial book they say is filled with references to sex and violence.

The book, “The Chocolate War,” which is required reading for 7th grade students, was blasted by parents at a Local School Council meeting Tuesday evening at the John H. Kinzie Elementary School in the Garfield Ridge neighborhood.

Nick Cortesi, who has a 2nd grader and a kindergartner at Kinzie, said school officials should remove the book because of its inappropriate content and adult themes.

“I’ll be dammed if they are going to be reading this filth,” Cortes said. “The issue is over whether it’s age-appropriate. What about the parents who are tax payers? Have we no say?”

At the meeting, Kinzie Principal Sean Egan told about 50 parents who showed up in the school’s cafeteria that he had informed public school administrators about their concerns and was told that officials thought the book was appropriate reading material.

“I don’t tell you how to run your family,” Egan told parents. “I support my teachers.”

After hearing from the district’s lawyers, the principal sent a letter to parents Monday informing them that the book would remain on the required reading list. He warned parents that if they directed their children not to read the book, it could “have a significant negative effect on the final course grade.”

“This book was selected for the very important, complex themes it covers, including conformity and the ethical implications of choices we make,” Egan wrote. “I want to assure you that the school has fully vetted this book. … A few parents have objected to the contents of the book, which addresses mature themes and contains some swearing. Decisions regarding the content of a school’s curriculum, however, lie with its educators and administrators.”