Topic: Education and Child Policy

Sawing Through the Limb You’re Standing On

I was just asked by a business reporter about the state of economics education in the United States, and thought I’d share my response:

There are no national or international benchmarks for student achievement in economics, so it’s hard to precisely gauge Americans’ grasp of the subject. The available evidence is not comforting, however. An academic survey study conducted in 1990 compared how much Americans and Russians understood about the way markets work. It found no significant difference. Americans understood free markets no better than a nation of people with virtually no personal experience of them. That’s sobering. And since the heaviest academic emphasis of the last fifteen years has been on elementary mathematics and reading, there is little reason to believe that we have improved our grasp of economics in the interim.

This should come as no surprise, for a couple of reasons. First, and most obviously, the academic performance of U.S. twelfth graders is at or near the bottom in mathematics and science according to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, when compared to the performance of students in other industrialized nations. We’re doing poorly in other subjects, why should economics be any different?

Second, it would be institutionally suicidal for a monopoly school system to do a good job of teaching market economics. The very fact that we continue to have a monopoly school system is retroactive proof that market economics has not been well taught. Monopolies, after all, tend to be frowned on by the economically savvy.

Note that this observation does not assume that government school officials are deliberately neglecting instruction in market economics. It simply posits that if they had been doing a good job of it, the system would already have been supplanted by one organized along free market lines.

Reality Hits 4 Public Schooling

Perhaps with the Supreme Court hearing a case on Monday pitting a student’s right to proclaim “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” against a public school’s need to maintain order, it was inevitable that public schooling conflicts would get some attention. If nothing else, what media outfit would pass up the chance to grab peoples’ attention with a phrase as absurd – but vaguely subversive – as “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”?

But maybe it’s not just a banner emblazoned with a bizarre phrase – which then-high school senior Joseph Frederick says he held up as a joke that ultimately got him suspended when the Olympic torch was run past his high school in January 2002 – that has brought attention to the fact that public schooling forces people and their values into conflict. Maybe, as I chronicled in Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict, it’s that such battles are constant – indeed, almost inevitable – in public schools for which all people must pay, but in which only one set of values can prevail.

Illustrating just how common such fighting is, at the same time the bong hits case was grabbing headlines this week, several other public schooling conflicts were in the news, including skirmishes over dress codes, a teacher giving kids material containing Biblical references, photo standards for yearbooks, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the content of public school library and text books. And just yesterday, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran a piece by columnist Patrick McIlheran that examined several battles being fought in public schools, and reached the only conclusion possible:

Nothing so fractures society as imposing beliefs people loathe….Of course the culture wars rage around schools. They will rage there as long as we hold to the idea that common schools can establish a unanimity that no longer exists, if ever it did. …

School choice is the answer. However it works, by charters or open enrollment or by vouchers, it recognizes that parents aren’t willing to think of their children as the common property of the state.

That schooling grounded in coercion and forced unity is doomed to constant rancor is a message, it seems, that might finally be getting out. If it does, we just might have the silly phrase “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” – as well as countless public schooling battles – to thank for it.

Just like Ohio’s Children, Gov. Strickland Needs a Good Education

Ryan Boots over at Edspresso hits Ohio’s new Governor Ted Strickland  for claiming that vouchers are “inherently undemocratic.”  Strickland thinks that vouchers are “inherently undemocratic” because “they allow public dollars to be used in ways and in settings where the public has little or no oversight,” and “those who are paying those tax dollars have no ability to vote for a board of education or to make determinations regarding curriculum, or discipline or admission policies or a whole range of things.”

As Ryan points out, this just isn’t the case with the highly (over)regulated EdChoice program, which encumbers participating schools with an array of restrictions that ensure no real market in education services will arise to serve the needs of the neediest children.

Even if Strickland’s fantasy voucher program did exist, however, the current system of government schooling is less democratic and more prone to corruption.  The profligate spending, waste and outright fraud that characterize the government education system hardly suggest that it is subject to effective public oversight.

And for good reason … it is controlled by the education-industrial complex, aka “Big Ed,” which short-circuits all political attempts to direct it for the public good.  Big Ed controls board of education elections as well as “determinations regarding curriculum, or discipline or admission policies or a whole range of things.”  That’s why exasperated policy experts with no love of the free market are calling for parental choice in education and why parents are desperate to escape a system they pay for but can’t control.

But Strickland does hit on one good point, buried though it may be beneath a pile of misconceptions and delusions.  “Those who are paying those tax dollars” for education should be able to direct their money to the kind of education that they support.  Agreed.

Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for kids to learn about condoms in the 3rd grade or abstinence-only in the 12th grade. Forcing all parents to educate their children in the same way is a recipe for irresolvable value conflicts and civic strife.   Disbursing general revenues for education forces some people to pay for education with which they disagree.

Education tax credits allow every taxpayer to support the kind of education they want to and force no one to pay for education to which they object.  Tax credits create a public education system where schools are accountable to the parents who choose them and the people who pay for them … not through a corrupt political process beholden to Big Ed, but directly accountable to the people themselves.

That is true oversight. That is a democratic system of education.  If Strickland can’t support vouchers, he certainly has no reason to oppose education tax credits.  Other than fealty to Big Ed over our children.

The Corrosion of Parental Rights

Today in the Oregon newspaper Bend Weekly, Phyllis Schlafly opines that “Congress should restore parental rights in public schools.” In the 35 years since I first heard Schlafly speak, I have rarely agreed with her on anything, but today is one of those occasions.

I certainly don’t believe in the substance of what she finds offensive, but I do agree that parents are being robbed of their rights to educate and bring up their children as they see fit. Of course, the answer is to abolish the public school system altogether, but until then, how do parents maintain even a minimal control over what their children are taught and exposed to in the public schools? 

Two things Schlafly proposes are appealing: She would like Congress to require public schools with human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination programs to offer the vaccine only on a parental “opt in,” not “opt out,” basis and that no public school should be allowed to deny a child entry into school for not being immunized against HPV. She also believes Congress should require that schools get written parental consent before subjecting children to mental health screening.

For once, I hope Schlafly gets her way.

Republicans Remember Some of Their Principles

Great headline in the Washington Post today –

Dozens in GOP Turn Against Bush’s Prized ‘No Child’ Act

The good news is that

More than 50 GOP members of the House and Senate – including the House’s second-ranking Republican – will introduce legislation today that could severely undercut President Bush’s signature domestic achievement, the No Child Left Behind Act, by allowing states to opt out of its testing mandates.

The bad news is that even

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said that advocates do not intend to repeal the No Child Left Behind Act. Instead, they want to give states more flexibility to meet the president’s goals of education achievement, he said.

So even a small-government federalist like Jim DeMint isn’t willing to say that education is a family, community, or state responsibility, but not a federal responsibility. Still, weakening the mandates would be a real victory for decentralization and competition.

I particularly liked the comment from Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), author of the proposed House bill:

“President Bush and I just see education fundamentally differently,” said Hoekstra, a longtime opponent of the law. “The president believes in empowering bureaucrats in Washington, and I believe in local and parental control.”

Hoekstra, who spoke at last week’s Cato conference on reauthorization of the No Child act (at the end of the panel 1 video), sounds like he’s read Cato’s 2005 paper on the topic. Now he and DeMint should reread the paper and commit themselves to getting the federal government out of our local schools.

Why, Oh Why, Oh Why, Oh – Why Did I Ever Leave Ohio?

I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, so this is personal.

Ohio used to have one of the lowest tax burdens in the country.  Now it has the third highest.  And, yes, that sucking sound is all the jobs going to other states.

After more than a decade of mismanagement and malfeasance under the control of an unprincipled tax-and-spend Republican Party, Ohio finally gave up and tried the other party last year.  They elected Democrat Ted Strickland as their new governor. (His opponent, Ken Blackwell, actually believes in and acts on the fiscal conservatism he ran on, but who can blame the voters for not buying it?).

Gov. Strickland laid out his budget plans in a speech yesterday, claiming he wants to do something the Republicans never did: cut spending!  (Of course the speech laid out some big new spending items, so I’m sure Ohio can look forward to more ballooning budgets and higher taxes, anyway).

Unfortunately, Gov. Strickland also proposed paying for this by gutting Ohio’s tiny voucher programStrickland is of course confused, because vouchers actually save money.  No matter, I’m sure that .08% of the budget will cover the Medicaid expansion!  Strickland also wants to put a moratorium on new charter schools and ban for-profit education management companies from running them.  (Andrew Coulson reviewed some of the reasons why killing educational freedom is such a demonstrably bad idea yesterday.)

If the Ohio Republican Party finds its principles and its spine, this just might be a time of great opportunity.

They can hold Strickland to his budget cuts, push for tax cuts, and pick a big fight over the Governor’s attempt to kill what little educational choice exists in Ohio.

The Republicans could even try to expand school choice by proposing education tax credits, which have received bipartisan support in other states.  The Democratic Governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, just proposed an education tax deduction in his budget proposal.  Last year, the Democrat-control Rhode Island legislature passed an education tax credit program, Democratic Governor Ed Rendell expanded Pennsylvania’s program, and the Democratic Governor of Arizona signed a new tax credit program into law.

Education tax credits can save a lot of money, because the scholarship organizations provide just what a family needs to move their child from an expensive failing school to a better, more efficient private school.  So tax credits will help Gov. Strickland get control over the bloated Ohio budget.

Education tax credits are a bi-partisan win-win-win-fest!  I hope Ohio makes me proud to be a native son once again by passing them.

Ohio Governor Seeks to Kill Voucher Program

In his State of the State address on Wednesday, Ohio governor Ted Strickland called for the elimination of the statewide voucher program aimed at students in public schools deemed to be failing. He is also seeking to prevent the creation of any new charter schools and to outlaw for-profit firms from managing charter schools.

He went on to say that no new grocery stores should be opened in Ohio, that grocery stores should not be permitted to operate for profit, and that the state would be withdrawing from the federal foodstamps program.

Okay, I made that last paragraph up. But the only reason you knew that is because we are all familiar with the advantages of a competitive market for grocery stores, and with the fact that government can subsidize access to food without actually running its own supermarkets.

Researchers who study school governance structures in an international and historical perspective know that the same things that are true of the grocery business are also true of the education sector. Members of the public who frequent Cato’s website or read our publications know this as well.

Tragically, at least one very influential man from Ohio is wholly ignorant of these facts.

This is yet another argument for federalism and against national standards in education. If Ohioans choose to elect leaders who will unravel the progress they have made toward parental choice and competition between schools, their state will lose a competitive advantage it currently enjoys in attracting businesses and families. Other states that pursue greater freedom in education will attract more businesses and families. Eventually, states will have to stop operating education as a monopoly jobs program and start letting families decide – or gradually become economic and cultural backwaters.

But if we nationalize education – as so many Republicans and Democrats currently wish to do – a single backward administration or Congress could ruin education for the entire nation.

Folks who still support national standards after thinking about that should re-read the part of Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” that deals with medieval Chinese naval capacity and technology, and the reasons these fell behind achievements in the West.