Topic: Education and Child Policy

School Choice and Government Education Realities

Blog-fight!  Very stimulating.  My thanks to Sara Mead at The Quick and the Ed, who responds to my response to her post about how advocates of educational freedom are hawking snake-oil. 

First, I’d like to happily and wholly agree with one of Mead’s points:  “[School choice programs that target students with disabilities] create perverse incentives for parents and schools that could exacerbate one of the biggest problems in special education: overidentification of students with disabilities.”  No argument there at all, and I would simply add that there are perverse incentives for disability over-ID in the public system right now.  Getting your kid classified as ADHD, or Asperger’s, etc. allows your child to receive extra consideration and a more individualized education.  If your child is difficult to control and only responds well in a particular educational environment, your only recourse may be a special classification.  Wouldn’t it be great if parents could just choose a school that works for their child in the first place, without the need to label them?

Now, on to the good stuff. 

Mead admits that these special programs “seem to be working okay,” but that “they don’t seem to be solving the problem they ostensibly were intended to solve–parent difficulties getting needed services or out-of-district placements for their children.”  I’m sorry, but I fail to see how giving parents another choice isn’t a general step forward.  No one ever claimed that vouchers would make the government system perfect, only that it would allow parents easily to look elsewhere for the services their child needs.  The program does that, and there’s nothing disingenuous about saying choice solves a lot of problems for thousands of families.  The report Mead cites claims only that children with less severe disabilities are the ones helped most by the program, not that it doesn’t help children with disabilities. 

I’d also like to point out that although political support is difficult to come by for any school choice program, the public actually supports universal over targeted programs by huge margins, often with two or three times the support.  This is a very consistent finding (I’ve found the same thing in my own recent opinion research).  And I think the school choice movement’s myopic obsession with hyper-targeted programs is both a tactical and a strategic mistake.

Mead concludes by conceding “there’s a compelling case that building an education system more premised on choice will have significant benefits, in terms of efficiency but more so in terms of customization and parent and student satisfaction and engagement.”  But then she insists “it’s also likely that educational policies that improve student achievement on average will end up leaving some [presumably low-income] children behind.”  I don’t know where this prediction comes from, other than from a general distrust of markets, but the relevant question here isn’t whether or not some children will be “left behind.”  The question is how many, and compared to what else?  How’s our current system doing in that department?  Pretty swell, eh?  And why, if the market is so likely to leave poor kids behind, are low-income families so desperate to get scholarships?  And why is a free market already serving the poor children in poor countries well?

And while we’re comparing school choice reform to present realities in the government system … school choice program problems with fraud and theft are nothing compared with the rampant corruption commonplace in the educational industrial complex.  Never mind the legal travesty of paying incompetent teachers large sums to malpractice because they are tenured and senior.

Finally, this sex-ed thing seems trivial, I know, but Mead shows a blind spot here that’s interesting. 

The conservatives she cites as supporting abstinence-only sex ed support it because they think it’s the best policy.  These conservatives also support a system of school choice in which liberals could send their kids to a free-range school where sex ed starts early and includes cucumber demonstrations of condom use.  In the absence of such a system, many of these conservatives support making abstinence-only sex ed the standard in sex-ed because without educational freedom, curriculum decisions are a zero-sum game.  You win, I lose.  I win, you lose.  This is a recipe for social strife, and we have it aplenty in our schools.

You see, there’s the system of education we have, and the one school choice supporters want.  The system we have forces diverse communities and families to decide, through a corrupt political process dominated by the educational industrial complex, on what every child will be taught. 

If you want your kid to have abstinence-only sex ed and can’t afford a choice, then you’d better throw your support behind those who want it in the curriculum.  The same goes for everything else under the curriculum sun. This doesn’t bear at all on the issue of support for educational freedom.

Ok, I think that’s all …

From the “When Will They Learn” File

The more wailing I hear from big-government conservatives about public education being monopolized by teachers unions, or progressive theorists, or a political system that just won’t see the light, the more amazed I am that these people obsess over conquering the hopeless system rather than letting parents and children out of it. When will they finally feel the mammoth weight of their own, huge complaints and realize that “more government, only with us in control” is a doomed reform strategy?

This morning, after reading a National Review Online piece by Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a leading neo-con education outfit, I found myself asking that same question again.

In his article, Petrilli discusses a House Education and Labor committee hearing scheduled for Friday that will focus on U.S. Department of Education staffers steering schools to specific, preferred curricula under the Reading First program. Reading First works, Petrilli declares, and he’s sickened that House Democrats will be playing politics with it by holding a hearing designed mainly to embarrass the Bush administration:

Whatever was done, it evidently worked for kids….The Office of Management and Budget recently declared [Reading First] the only “effective” No Child Left Behind program. A new report from the Government Accountability Office…is filled with plaudits from state officials, who have seen their reading scores skyrocket. This creates a bit of a conundrum for committee chairman George Miller, one of the architects of No Child Left Behind and thus of Reading First. His commitment to closing the achievement gap is well known….But so is his fealty to Speaker…Nancy Pelosi. And this supposed “scandal” gives the Democrats a shot at another Bush-administration scalp.

So what does Petrilli think our representatives ought to be doing instead of indulging in what he calls “political theater of the absurd”? Tackling questions like:

Should the federal government be in the business of prescribing and proscribing curricula for the nation’s schools, and if so how? What are the pros and cons?

Of course! Instead of wasting all their time on the political opportunism, grandstanding, and show-hearings to which they are addicted, federal politicians should be figuring out if they should exert even more control over American education.

Unfortunately, we know what Petrilli would like them to decide were they able to leave stupid and destructive politics aside for even just a moment and actually get down to business. As he and the Fordham Foundation have made clear many times before, he’d want these hopeless political opportunists to authorize the creation of national curricular standards, which in the end - though Petrilli and Fordham won’t admit it - would give the politicians even more control over American education.

Now THAT is absurd. Unfortunately, it’s also par for the neo-con course.

Drop the Excuses for Poor Coverage of School Choice

Jay Mathews, education reporter for the Washington Post, urges everyone to drop the voucher issue because:

1. “I am tired of the voucher issue.”

Mathews may feel like he’s had to write about vouchers too much, but most of the public hasn’t heard a thing about them, and certainly doesn’t know much about education tax credits, which get far less coverage and are usually called “vouchers” by journalists covering the education beat in any case. 

Being tired of covering an issue is a sorry excuse for a journalist to call for its dismissal.  Although, I have to say that it’s difficult to see how he could be tired of vouchers when he mentioned them in only 3 out of about 121 articles over the past year.  That’s just over 2 percent of his articles.

Perhaps Mathews could look into the bipartisan promise of education tax credits, which he mentions not at all over the past year.  Arizona, Rhode Island and Iowa passed tax-credit programs last year, and Pennsylvania expanded its existing business-tax credit program. The Arizona, Iowa, and Pennsylvania bills became law with Democratic governors, and the Rhode Island business-tax credit was born in a legislature controlled by Democrats. Finally, Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer in deep-blue New York proposed an education-tax deduction in his first state budget.

And he could even give more attention to charter schools, which he mentioned only 8 times.

2. “I do not think such programs are going to solve our education crisis.”

I disagree.  Just because a reform won’t solve every problem, doesn’t mean that it won’t solve many of them. 

And it will solve the education crisis of many individual children.

3. “Few of us are willing to go the voucher route.”

So, because most people don’t want to use a voucher no one should have the chance? 

Mathews claims, “I don’t see anything wrong with the [voucher] idea itself… .  I could not think of a single thing to say [to try to persuade a low-income mother that using a voucher is wrong] that would not leave me feeling guilty and deceitful.”

How would Mathews’ third objection hold up with a voucher mom as an argument for dropping the issue?  How would any of these objections?

4. “It is too risky, and too inconvenient.”

For whom is it too risky and inconvenient?  How is it too risky?  The parents who desperately need options for their child aren’t bothered by the inconvenience, and they certainly know it’s more risky to leave their child in a failing and dangerous school.

Again, how would this argument fly with a voucher mom?

Mathews goes on to say that “the two major political parties find it very hard to drop the voucher issue,” because “they can raise money on that issue forever, while in the meantime not doing much for schools.” 

This is absurd.  School choice is no fundraising issue.  School choice is being driven by people who believe it will save children and money while improving education across the board.  Lawmakers who support school choice, especially Democrats, are siding with principle and risking the wrath of the educational industrial complex.  With a monopoly on education, control of school boards, and forced dues, the big education unions have a lot more money to throw around during election season than school choice activists. 

Mathews may be tired of the voucher issue, but I think a little more reporting on school choice might do justice to his vocation as a journalist.

Government Monopoly is our Educational Disease

Sara Mead over at The Quick and The Ed laments the one-note, “pro-voucher conservative insistence that choice will solve any and all educational problem one can imagine*,” including what she thinks is a phony “boy crisis.” The asterisk there is for sex ed – she is under the misapprehension that supporters of educational freedom want to make an exception here to force all children to be taught “abstinence-only.”

I really wonder whether Mead understands what choice in education means … it certainly doesn’t mean a state-mandated curriculum, conservative or liberal. A state mandated curriculum means no effective choice. That’s what we have right now, and choice in education is the way to change it.

The larger point here, though, is found in the utterly exhausted trope Mead trots out: our education problems can’t be solved with a “silver bullet” (she uses the hammer-nail metaphor, but you get the point).

Why don’t I try my hand at this: A single disease can cause many symptoms.

Brain cancer may cause debilitating headaches, but the cancer is the cause and the headache is a symptom of that disease. Some treatments of breast cancer might cause heart failure, but the cancer is still the root problem. If there’s no cancer, none of these problems exist.

The major educational problems in this country – poor student achievement, the achievement gap, low efficiency, high and climbing costs, social conflict, even discipline and safety – are not independent of each other. These problems are symptoms caused by the same disease: a government controlled and operated educational system.

Mead doesn’t understand how the mechanism of educational freedom can solve specific educational problems, and that’s too much to fully explain in a blog posting. A better way of putting it is that educational freedom is a mechanism that allows specific educational problems to be solved. This is the core difference between market and command and control systems.

I am not saying that in a system of educational freedom we would wake to find a Lake Wobegon America, where all children are above average, education costs nothing, and social ills have disappeared.

I am saying that the serious problems prompting all of our policy debates will be greatly mitigated by educational choice, and to an extent greater than under any other possible reform.

Government monopolies are very poor providers of all services, but they are especially poor providers of something as nuanced, personal, and value-laden as education.

The education industrial complex, Big Ed, is the disease. Educational freedom is the cure.

To Fix Student Lending, Government Must Go

There’s been a lot of unflattering news lately about the student loan industry: Revelations about schools and lenders in revenue-sharing deals; college financial aid officers holding stock in companies on their schools’ “preferred lender” lists; a U.S. Department of Education official owning shares in a lending company he was supposed to be overseeing; and just yesterday, revelations that some lending companies have had largely unfettered access to a federal database stocked with Social Security numbers, email addresses, loan balances, and other sensitive information belonging to tens-of-millions of student borrowers.

To many people, these revelations are just further evidence of the immoral, rapacious greed of for-profit lenders. As Generation Debt author Anya Kamenetz explained recently on the Huffington Post blog:

When I wrote my first piece about the student debt crisis in the Village Voice in June 2004, the future looked grim. Average student loan burdens doubled in the 1990s to nearly $20,000, and in February 2006, barely a year ago, Congress passed the largest cuts to student aid in history.

I never would have guessed that the tide would turn so quickly and that the loan industry, with its fat profits, billions in government subsidies, private jets and baseball teams, would be on the defensive. But here we are.

Kamenetz and others like her are right to be angry about the cushy arrangements lenders have secured through the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP), which guarantees student loans with federal tax dollars. Her solution to the overall student loan mess, however, would do little to attack the root cause of the scandals and graft:

The Direct Loan Program. Switching [to it from FFELP], as described in the reintroduced STAR Act, would save billions we could then use for much needed grant aid. And a “single payer” Direct Loan program would save on marketing costs and limit the potential for scandals like the current one.

The federal Direct Loan Program – which currently furnishes about a quarter of all federal student loans – cuts out private lenders and sends loans directly from the U.S. Treasury to college kids. Now, that might be cheaper to run – though that is itself hotly debated – but the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, which is just what we’d be doing if we decided to solve the current student loan disaster by giving the federal government even more student lending power. The government, you see, is the root cause of the current problems, not the solution:

  • The subsidies that have enriched lenders were created by federal policymakers, not loan companies.
  • Massive federal aid – which according to the latest inflation-adjusted data from the College Board exploded from $48.3 billion to $94.4 billion over just the last decade – has helped fuel skyrocketing tuition, creating ever-bigger federal and private loan markets.
  • Some of the biggest problems unearthed so far directly involve federal breakdowns, including a federal official owning over $100,000 worth of stock in a company he was supposed to be overseeing, and federal bureaucrats giving some lenders almost free rein to comb over highly sensitive student data. (Which, by the way, also ought to make even the most trusting person very dubious of federal promises to fully protect student privacy if allowed to maintain a proposed “unit record database” containing detailed information on every college student in America.)

Unfortunately, many of the student lending industry’s antagonists aren’t actually all that concerned with maximizing efficiency or saving taxpayers money. What they’re primarily interested in is getting as many cheap dollars to students as they can. In other words, its not outrageous subsidies they’re especially angry about, but that the wrong special interests are getting them.

Michael Dannenberg, Director of the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program and editor of its Higher Ed Watch blog, recently made this abundantly clear:

The ultimate success of these student loan investigations will be measured by the degree to which they result in cheaper college loans for students and families. Right now, students are paying interest rates for college loans that are simply too high.

Apparently it doesn’t matter that total, inflation-adjusted federal aid doubled over the last decade; that inflation-adjusted aid per full-time-equivalent student rose from $6,700 to $10,113 in that same time, or that the interest rate on subsidized federal loans is fixed at 6.8 percent while the prime rate is currently 8.25 percent. For Dannenberg and others like him, when it comes to federal policy college students never get a fair deal.

In light of the reality that the special interests most heavily involved in the student aid debate want as much money for themselves as they can get, and that the government has almost always been happy to provide it, it’s clear that what would be best for taxpayers would neither be to maintain FFELP nor to switch completely to Direct Lending, but to eliminate federal aid altogether. Then, the people who would be enriched would be taxpayers – well, maybe “unharmed” would be a more accurate description – while both lenders and students would finally have to earn an honest buck.

Let’s Get One Thing Straight

As Washington gears up to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), you can expect to hear a lot of over-the top-rhetoric. “NCLB is working.” “The law is underfunded.” Things like that.

And then there’s this gem uttered yesterday by President Bush:

It’s really important for the citizens to understand that I’m a huge believer in the public school systems. I believe our public schools have really made America.

Now, a lot of the crazy rhetoric we’re going to be subjected to during reauthorization is going to need refutation, but let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: Public schooling — especially the super-centralized, big-government public schooling enshrined in NCLB — did NOT make America. That is a myth that’s been perpetuated to prop up failed public schooling for far too long, and it’s about time people stopped putting up with it.

As I discuss at some length in Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict, and Marie Gryphon explains in detail in Our History of Educational Freedom: What It Should Mean for Families Today, public schooling imposed from above is not how education was delivered in America until relatively recently. During the nation’s colonial and Founding periods — when the United States was literally made — education was delivered almost exclusively through private and voluntary means and it worked very well. Indeed, that was the case until almost the end of the nineteenth century, when the progressive movement finally started closing the door on parental freedom and imposing centralized control over education.

And that’s when things started to really go downhill.

Centralizing control of education at higher and higher levels, and forcing all Americans to support public schooling with their tax dollars, has spurred constant fighting and done nothing to improve educational outcomes. Whether it’s been battles over the teaching of human origins, prayer in schools, multiculturalism, book-banning, sex education, phonics and whole language, or numerous other issues, government schooling has divided Americans while simultaneously giving government officials and bureaucrats a virtual, suffocating monopoly over American education.

What really built America is something quite the opposite of compulsory, centralized public schooling. Freedom — not big government — is what built this nation, rewarding hard work, driving innovation, attracting millions of immigrants to our shores, and unifying diverse ethnic and religious groups through their common desires for liberty and prosperity.

Freedom is what really built America, and it’s time that people stopped giving public schooling credit for its success.

It’s the System, Comrade

In response to my recent Washington Post piece criticizing government-imposed curricula and standards, an ed prof. just wrote to say: “Yes, but….”

His objection was that he did not see the need for market forces to drive excellence in education, citing a consortium of public schools in the Chicago suburbs as an example of high quality within the current monopoly system.

This not only misses my point, it inadvertently proves it.

My point is not that pockets of quality and thrift are impossible within a monopoly system, but that those pockets generally remain isolated and transitory. Monopolies lack a mechanism by which excellence is automatically and routinely encouraged, identified, disseminated and perpetuated. That mechanism is what markets provide, and is why, as I wrote in the WaPo piece, iPods have gone from 5 to 80 gigabytes, and televisions from 4” black and white tubes to 4’ color panels.

While a monopoly school system can certainly have bright spots, they tend to be isolated and transitory. Brilliant government school teachers are at best given a plaque, and at worst driven out of the system (as happened to Jaime Escalante). Pointing to isolated public school successes from decades past – successes that were not replicated elsewhere, not expanded, and usually not even sustained for more than a generation – is proof that our government monopoly lacks the market’s excellence engine.

In education markets, like the Asian tutoring industry, top teachers are superstars who get to design curricula for thousands or even millions of students and train scores or hundreds of other teachers to use their effective methods. Quality providers expand and are emulated by competitors, and there is a powerful incentive for meaningful innovation.

One teacher in Korea’s private tutoring sector made $2 million last year because his web-based employer has profit sharing and he’s brilliant at what he does, so he gets tons of students. That’s what should have happened to Escalante. That’s the sort of success that should greet excellence in education at all levels. It doesn’t because we don’t have a market.