Topic: Education and Child Policy

No Resort Left Behind

A few years ago I wrote a paper trying to itemize where federal education dollars go. Unfortunately, no one keeps comprehensive data on uses like this. Apparently, you just can’t analyze student performance without “four-and-a-half acres of indoor gardens and winding waterways….a 25,000-square-foot day spa and fitness center” and “the energy of Glass Cactus nightclub.”

Must You Smear?

Over at Flypaper, Liam Julian has started a Quick and the Ed Watch, a quest to expose every bit of hyperbole that comes out of the blog belonging to the think tank Education Sector. Well, we at Cato have had our own share of run-ins with those fine folks, and Kevin Carey’s response to my current Cato Policy Report cover story shows why.

Carey has chosen to use my piece as the latest exhibit in his case to prove that there’s a “libertarian conspiracy to destroy public education,” and he writes with the tone of a man convinced he’s got me and the conspiracy on our way to death row:

there really are people out there who simply want to dismantle the entire enterprise….People like Neil [sic] McCluskey…who recently published a new policy brief explaining why public education is intrinsically un-American. Again, that’s not bloggerly snark, it’s the actual thesis: McCluskey believes that public education is a “fundamentally flawed–and un-American–institution” and a later subhead describes “Public Schooling’s Un-American Ideals.”

Maybe I should blame myself for this. I did write that public schooling is a “fundamentally flawed—and un-American—institution.” Of course, Carey asserts that I said public education is the problem. Apparently, I didn’t make a clear enough distinction between the two. So when I wrote, for instance, that we should “end public schooling and return to public education….Ensure that the poor can access education, but let parents decide how and where their children will be educated,” I was obviously being too verbose. Who could read that and know that I’m against government-dominated, take-what-we-give-you public schooling, while I favor empowering all parents to themselves pursue good education for their children? And why does Carey fail to address any of the substance of what I wrote, like data showing that early-American education worked for broad swaths of people, or quotes demonstrating that social control has been the aim of many public-schooling advocates? I guess I should have written something much shorter, or done a YouTube video, or written a Haiku, or something.

Actually, I’m starting to think this isn’t my fault at all. The problem is that Carey is trying to do what far too many public-schooling defenders resort to when presented with reasoned critiques of their favorite institution: smear the messenger, and try to keep the substance of the message from seeing even the slightest light of day.

Sadly, Carey’s blatant disregard for the distinction I drew between public schooling and public education, and even his failure to consider any of my major points or evidence, isn’t what ends up taking the sorry cake. The lowest point is his effort to equate opposing government-dominated schooling with supporting propertied-class privilege, disenfranchised women, and all sorts of other inequalities that Carey knows weren’t the products of a free education system, but rather legally—read: government—imposed constrictions. And I might add that public schooling systems segregated African-Americans well into the 20th Century and treated lots of minority groups as second-class citizens. I would never use this, though, to blow off defenders of public schooling as somehow being neo-segregationists. That’s just not how we in “the libertarian conspiracy to destroy public education” roll.

State Budget Problems Can Be Solved, Without Cuts

Chris Edwards rightly takes the Wall Street Journal to task for its breathless report that “the stumbling U.S. economy is forcing states to slash spending and cut jobs in order to close a projected $40 billion shortfall in the current fiscal year.”

Like he says, smaller spending increases are “certainly no crisis after the orgy of budget expansion in recent years.”And Medicaid spending is dangerously out of control.

I’d only add that states are spending much more on k-12 education than Medicaid. At 25 percent of all state-derived expenditures, it’s almost double Medicaid’s 13 percent share. State spending on k-12 education dwarfs any other category.

And while cuts in government spending are a good thing, saving money with a huge expansion of freedom is even better.

That’s why the best way solve state budget problems is something no one is yet considering; broad-based school choice.

Here’s what the five states in our recent fiscal analysis of the Public Education Tax Credit stand to save if they do what’s right and greatly expand educational freedom:

Texas saves $15.9 billion in the first 10 years and $5.4 billion every year after the program has been in operation for 15 years.

New York saves $15.1 billion in the first 10 years and $4.8 billion every year after the program has been in operation for 15 years.

Wisconsin saves $9.3 billion in the first 10 years and $3.2 billion every year after the program has been in operation for 15 years.

Illinois saves $5.1 billion in the first 10 years and $1.6 billion every year after the program has been in operation for 15 years.

South Carolina saves $1.1 billion in the first 10 years and $350 million every year after the program has been in operation for 15 years.

If the Swedish System Is Socialist, What’s Ours?

As a recent AP story helpfully points out, big government, dirigist Sweden has had a private school choice program since the early 1990s, and parents are loving it. Private school enrollment is up from one percent to ten percent of total enrollment, and still climbing.

Interestingly, Sweden’s education system was described today in a separate news story as “socialist.” Now I’m the first to acknowledge that Sweden’s system is far from a completely free market (see the AP story above), but it is certainly less socialist than our own public school systems in the United States, which automatically assign most kids to government-run institutions.

So if reporters think the Swedish system is socialist, why don’t they describe ours in the same way?

Preschool is a ‘Magic’ Answer

I’ll get to the boring Oklahoma data dispute soon, but first I’d like to respond to a small point in my ongoing debate with Sara Mead of the New America Foundation.

Mead thinks I’m being uncharitable in my characterization of how she and the New America Foundation approach preschool policy: “And, Schaeffer is most definitely wrong, given our commitment to pre-k as one part of a broader school reform agenda, to lump me in with the silver bullet crew.”

First, I’ve never said that these folks claim preschool is a silver bullet, or an inoculation, or what-have-you. I’ve said they wildly oversell what preschool can do. But I guess I should have looked more closely at their website, which seems more nuanced than I first thought.

From their website’s Education Policy Program Overview: “Early Education. There is no magic answer in education policy, but preschool comes close.”

I didn’t expect to agree with their characterization … preschool really is close to a “magic” answer! It provides the illusion of an answer to our educational problems. But that’s all it is: an illusion.

Preschool is, at best, of marginal long-term value to at-risk children. The real answer to our educational problems lies in reforming the k-12 system.

Instead of chasing magical solutions like universal pre-k, we should focus on the one proven and potentially systemic k-12 reform: educational freedom.

Riddle Us This

I’m currently attending Cato University – extraordinary academics, so-so athletics – so I’ve neither been able to get to the edublogs in too timely a fashion, nor ruminate extensively on their content. I have, though, managed to get to a few blogs, and couldn’t help but notice a question-and-answer in need of facilitation.

Over at Flypaper – the blog of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation – Mike Petrilli has returned from vacation and not missed a beat in his national-education-standards march. Picking up on a recent Jonathan Alter column dealing largely with crippling teacher-union obstructionism, Petrilli declares that:

if we harnessed the resources we currently spend on our fifty-state system of tests for one common system, we could afford to measure subjects beyond reading and math, online, in a way that encouraged intellectually-challenging schoolwork rather than test prep.

My concern here is not with the money-saving proposition. It’s with the “intellectually-challenging schoolwork” assumption. It goes back to an argument I’ve made many times before, but this time another blogger has brought it up, and one quite different than libertarian ol’ me. Asks Andy Rotherham over at Eduwonk, contemplating the gaming of state tests under No Child Left Behind:

Can someone explain exactly how a national, federal, or “American” in the new parlance, test will be any different?  If indeed there is a political pathology out there to make schools look better, regardless of whether they are better, a proposition that seems pretty spot on to me, then how are the politics somehow so radically different at the national level?  National test proponents have never really answered this question except to point to the NAEP.  But, the NAEP is a no-stakes test right now so it really doesn’t make the point.

Terrific questions, Andy, to which I’d just add: How especially would you expect high-stakes national tests to escape gaming pressures when the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, American Association of School Administrators, National School Boards Association, and just about every other major education interest group has its headquarters right in the DC area?

I – and I assume Andy – would love to hear the answers to these questions.