Topic: Education and Child Policy

…or Sometimes as Tragedy and Farce

“History repeats itself: first as tragedy then as farce,” according to Karl Marx. Not to be outdone, Congress and the president have gone Karl one better by managing both at once.

The “America Competes Act,” signed into law today by President Bush, is pungently reminiscent of the National Defense Education Act of 1958, passed during the techno-existential crisis that followed the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite.

The impact of the NDEA was slight. Adoption of new federally-sponsored curricula and teaching methods was slow and uneven, and the bureaucratic process through which the money was allocated did a predictably bad job of weeding out good scientific instruction programs from bad ones — so it isn’t clear that faster or broader adoption would have been desirable.

In addition to repeating that earlier mistake, the “America Competes Act” is also deeply ironic — its methods run precisely counter to its motivations. Spurred by the necessity of keeping up with foreign competitors in our global economy, Congress has decided to resort to central planning. What they have given us, in other words, is the “America Competes Via Central Planning Act.”

There is a painfully obvious, irony-free alternative: We can increase our global competitiveness in education by forcing all schools to compete for the privilege of serving each and every student. America, more than any other nation in history, has proven that market competition drives up quality and drives down costs across the entire economy. And yet, in the area of education, we remain unconsciously but inextricably wedded to a Marxist approach, despite overwhelming evidence of its inferiority.

It is as though Congress, like “international man of mystery” Austin Powers, has just awoken after sleeping in suspended animation since the 1960s, unaware of how the Cold War turned out.

Basil Expedition:  The Cold War is over!
Austin Powers:  Well!  Finally those capitalistic pigs will pay for their crimes, eh? Eh comrades? Eh?
Basil Expedition:  Austin… we won.
Austin Powers:  Oh, groovy, smashing!  Yay capitalism!

Uh, Congress? We won, and market forces work as well in education as in every other field.

A Lot of Kids Aren’t Alright

The WSJ editorial board looks at recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores for American students and sees a glass half full:

Pop quiz: Which has been most important in reducing poverty over time: a) taxes, b) economic growth, c) international trade, or d) government regulation?

We know what our readers would say. But lest you think American young people are slouching toward serfdom, you’ll be pleased to know that 53% of U.S. high school seniors also answered “b.” The latest version of NAEP asked this question, among others on economics, and the results will not please members of the Socialist International, or for that matter the Senate Finance Committee.

Good news, I suppose, considering that our kids are mostly taught by employees of a government monopoly. But 53% is only a bare majority.  Even if you add in the 8% of students who picked trade, you only get to 61% of students giving an answer that’s remotely plausible. 

So here’s the half-empty analysis: Some 38% of high school seniors think either that taxes or government regulation has been the most important factor in reducing poverty over time.

That’s just plain scary.  Add it to the very, very long list of reasons why we need to reform our government-mandated system of government youth indoctrination and support educational freedom through tax credits.

Even Public School Employees Love Education Tax Credits!

This recent Education Next/ Harvard (PEPG) survey of U.S. adults’ opinions on education issues has been out for a bit, but everyone seems to have missed some really interesting results. 

In this poll, like so many others, there is significantly more support for tax credits (53 percent) to offset private education costs than for school vouchers (45 percent), and much greater opposition to vouchers (34 percent) than to tax credits (25 percent).  That leaves a 28-point margin of support for tax credits compared to just 11 points for vouchers. 

And before you object that “the voucher label has been trashed by the unions!,” the possibly tainted word “voucher” doesn’t appear in the relevant survey question.

But that’s not all; most current/former employees of the government school system support tax credits, by a decisive margin of 22 percent!

I have to repeat that, because it just feels so flippin’ good: Most of the people who have worked for the government school system support education tax credits.

This is truly remarkable.  Even vouchers are only narrowly opposed by public school employees, by a close two-point margin. 

It is clear that using tax credits to effect school choice is much more popular and less objectionable to the general public, and even to public school employees, than are vouchers.  It is also clear that the word “voucher” appears to have relatively little to do with the tax credit advantage in public support. 

I just wish they had asked about broad-based programs, not just ones targeted to low-income families.  Polls show that the public is much more supportive of universal policies.

Education tax credits are a political win — and we in the school choice movement need to do a much better job getting politicians to see that fact.

Good News for D.C. Schools

The Washington Post reports:

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said yesterday that most of the District’s public schools will start the academic year this month stocked with required textbooks, although more than half of the schools lack the requisite number.

Most of the schools will have textbooks when they open. Cool. A few years ago the school superintendent was boasting that most of the schools would open on time. So this is an improvement. Not only will they open, most of them will have textbooks.

My former colleague Casey Lartigue told the sad story of the D.C. government-run schools five years ago. Then-School Board president Peggy Cooper Cafritz sharply rebuked him — without pointing out any errors in the study — at a Cato Policy Forum.

Does America Need a Training School for Bureaucrats?

Investor’s Business Daily comments on Hillary Clinton’s proposal for a national school to train “public servants.” But does America need a West Point for bureaucrats? The IBD editorial touches on some of the obvious shortcomings of the scheme, but it also is worth noting that such a school sounds frighteningly similar to France’s infamous l’Ecole d’Administration, the elitist institution that produced a long string of statist politicians such as Jacques Chirac:

Sen. Hillary Clinton says she wants to establish a national academy that will train public servants. Why do re-education camps come to mind? … Somehow we doubt there will be many lectures in making government smaller, deregulating business, cutting taxes or increasing individual freedom. Is there a chance that this “new generation” attending the academy will hear a single voice that isn’t hailing the glories of the nanny state? Will students being groomed for public service ever hear the names Hayek, von Mises or Friedman during their studies? … Government at all levels is already overflowing with bureaucrats who suck up taxpayers’ money and produce little, if anything, of economic value. More often, the bureaucracy actually gets in the way of economic progress.

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.