Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.”

What Could Possibly Be Better than “Public Policy Values?”

Last week, the New America Foundation’s Sara Mead took issue with a blog entry I wrote wondering how her group could tout student loan auctions because they use “market forces” while simultaneously advocating for “the gargantuan market distortion that is the overall student aid system.” Mead replied with a “there you libertarians go again” argument, writing that Cato:

holds that unrestrained markets always produce the best possible outcomes. But McCluskey is confusing means and ends here. Harnessing market forces is often the most efficient way of getting to a particular end. But we believe that public policy should use market forces to achieve desirable ends based on public policy values.

Now, let’s not get bogged down in some very important questions like who defines “desirable ends,” or what, exactly, “public policy values” are. No, let’s get right to a bottom line with which it seems Mead and I might be able to agree.

Toward the end of her argument, Mead says that it is important to “increase college affordability and access…because among other reasons, a better educated population produces broader social benefits—more civic engagement, innovation, economic growth, etc.” I agree with at least part of this. Economic growth is a good goal to shoot for, because it tends to reflect both the innovation Mead values, and an increasingly efficient and effective allocation of societal resources.

So it turns out a funny thing happens when the market is subverted to spend more money on higher education: It actually hinders economic growth. As economist Richard Vedder found in Going Broke By Degree: Why College Costs Too Much, controlling for other factors impacting economic growth, the more states invest in higher education, the lower their rates of economic growth. That’s right: letting “public policy values” force money out of taxpayers’ pockets and into colleges and universities actually has a dampening effect on economic growth.

Why is this? Because if left alone, individual taxpayers will produce better results in the aggregate than government can. Individuals know what they want and need better than any government, and even more importantly, in a truly free market they have to balance their needs and desires against those of all the other people in society, resulting in the fairest, most efficient, aggregate outcome. Not so with government, where politicians can’t possibly divine and balance the needs of everyone in our impossibly complex society, and the people with the most lobbying power often get what they want specifically because they don’t have to balance their needs against everyone else’s.

In the case of higher education, this plays itself out with relatively well-off students often getting aid; students spending large amounts of time partying rather than focusing on graduation; professors devoting much of their time to esoteric, often government-funded research instead of teaching; and universities using resources very inefficiently. Meanwhile, taxpayers are doing without money they might have used to buy food, or invest in innovative young companies, or any number of other uses that would have been much more beneficial to society, but which politicians ignore because – unlike kids taking subsidized loans or bigger Pell Grants – their absence is invisible.

Thankfully, sometimes there are crystal-clear signs of government failure. Case in point: all those lenders – especially the federally created Sallie Mae  – that Mead and others despise for making billions of dollars off of student loans. How’d they do it? Not through “unrestrained markets,” but government-subsidized loan programs designed to circumvent market forces in pursuit of – you guessed it – “public policy values.”

More than a Glancing Blow

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has just released its “Education at a Glance” report for 2007, but before glancing at it Americans might want to sit down.

We already know, from a variety of international testing programs (e.g. TIMSS, PISA), that U.S. students fall further behind their international peers the longer they stay in school (.pdf). We’re close to average among wealthy nations in the 4th grade, below that average by the 8th grade, and near the bottom of the heap by the end of high school. Apologists for the status quo sometimes claim that this is because many other nations track their students into vocational and academic programs, and supposedly do not test those in the vocational tracks. “Education at a Glance 2007” shows that isn’t so. Test data for vocational students are available, and show that vocational track students in other wealthy nations actually outperform the overall U.S. average.

Nor do any of the other common excuses for our poor performance hold up. At the elementary and secondary level, the United States spends more than all but two countries (Luxembourg and Switzerland – tax havens, both). Though the United States was once a world leader in the fraction of our student population that completes college, we have been caught and surpassed in that regard. With 34% of our students going on to graduate from college in 2005, we now fall below the average of the OECD, and in 13th place overall.

The reason we now lag in this area is not hard to fathom: We are tied for the highest college dropout rate in the whole of the OECD, 46 percent. The problem is not that our colleges are inaccessible, it is that our elementary and high schools have failed to prepare students for college. They can get in. They just can’t cut it once they’re there.

At the college level, we have consumer choice and competition between public and private providers, and our college system is still the envy of the world, according to the OECD’s “At a Glance” report. At the K-12 level, we have a monopoly in which most students are automatically assigned to government-run schools. The first works, the second doesn’t. The policy ramifications should be pretty obvious to anyone who actually cares about educational outcomes.