Topic: Education and Child Policy

The Evolutionary War, Part Deux

In response to an earlier post, a reader e-mails with the following comment: “Intelligent Design is fundamentally a religious theory and thus cannot be taught in public schools according to the First Amendment.” 

Regrettably, it’s not that simple. For the first century of their existence, state schools engaged in official prayer and Bible reading in bald defiance of the First Amendment. That official religiosity was only discontinued after a 1963 Supreme Court ruling. There’s no reason it couldn’t come back. The sad truth is that our Constitution and Bill of Rights are regularly trampled over by legislators who find their content inconvenient (viz., the 10th Amendment). 

Furthermore, there is no guarantee that all courts, in perpetuity, will see Intelligent Design as a religious theory, as happened to be the case in last year’s Pennsylvania District Court verdict [.pdf]. 

Even at present, public schools in many parts of the country have watered down their coverage of the theory of evolution to avoid rousing the ire of adherents of ID or creationism. This is perhaps part of the reason that only 13 percent of Americans think humans evolved through entirely natural processes, while the rest think they were created in their present form (46%), or guided in their evolution (31%), by the god of their choice.

Natural human evolution has been public schools’ sole explanation for human origins for three generations, and that is the result. The official knowledge thing has thus already been tried, at length, and it has failed on its own terms.

Parental choice is a better approach. Those who want their children to receive a high-quality secular scientific education will be able to get it – which many cannot do in our current public schools. And those who want to pass along their religious beliefs about human origins to their children will be free to do so, without being forced to wheedle those beliefs into the official government schools for which they are compelled to pay. 

Most important of all, in a country founded on freedom of conscience and individual liberty, it is not the government’s proper role to indoctrinate children with the majority’s views (or, in this case, a tiny but influential minority’s views) – whether or not you or I happen to think those views are correct. 

Still more here.

Gimme That Old Time Sci-ence

Much of America’s soi-pensant intellectual left opposes school choice as a solution to the Intelligent Design vs. Evolution battle. They argue that some things, like science instruction, are too important to be left to the discretion of the drooling masses “unqualified” parents. The state must step in, they believe, to ensure that all children are taught the non-Gospel, God-not-fearing, scientific TRUTH.

A small problem with this “reasoning” is that it fails to consider the possibility that the state might not always be in possession of said TRUTH. Consider, for instance, the recent words of Arkansas’ Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Mike Beebe: “I believe in intelligent design and I don’t think intelligent design and evolution are mutually exclusive.” Beebe went on to tell reporters that intelligent design should be available to students alongside curriculum on evolution theory. The Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor, Jim Holt, “called evolution a ‘fraud theory’ and said that keeping intelligent design out of the classroom is censorship.”

Thanks to the federal government’s accelerating usurpation of control over the nation’s public schools, it is not difficult to imagine a day when such candidates hold federal office and can shape instruction in classrooms all across America.

How, exactly, would that protect the scientific truth so ostensibly dear to the anti-choice left?

This is why the latent totalitarianism of so many American intellectuals is remarkably short sighted. It might not always be a friendly face waiving from the back seat of the flag-adorned staff-car….

More here.

Where Are the Conservatives?

When the Education Department was created in 1979, many critics warned that a secretary of education would turn into a national minister of education. Rep. John Erlenborn (R-Ill.), for instance, wrote,

There would be interference in textbook choices, curricula, staffing, salaries, the make-up of student bodies, building designs, and all other irritants that the government has invented to harass the population. These decisions which are now made in the local school or school district will slowly but surely be transferred to Washington.

Dissenting from the committee report that recommended establishing the department, Erlenborn and seven other Republicans wrote, “The Department of Education will end up being the Nation’s super schoolboard. That is something we can all do without.”

That’s why Ronald Reagan promised to abolish Jimmy Carter’s Department of Education in his 1980 campaign. And why House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich put abolition of the department in his budget proposal after the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress.

But things changed. Instead of eliminating or at least reducing federal intervention in local schools, Republicans in 2001 decided to dramatically escalate it with the No Child Left Behind Act. And now Jeb Bush, whom some conservatives call the best governor in the country, writes in the Washington Post (along with Michael Bloomberg) that we should strengthen NCLB. Make it tougher, they write, with real standards and real enforcement. Create data systems to “track” every student. Create federal standards for teachers.

If there’s an earthquake this week, it may be caused by Madison, Taft, Goldwater, and Reagan turning over in their graves. Imagine it: the leading conservative governor in America, considered a pioneer in education reform, wants the distant federal government to come into his state’s schools and impose tougher rules and regulations. And even the Wall Street Journal’s redoubtable editorial page deplores “rampant noncompliance” with federal mandates and “lax enforcement” by Big Brother in Washington.

In its new issue, American Conservative magazines asks two dozen leading intellectuals “What is left? What is right? Does it matter?” Not if leading conservatives have made their peace with federal control of local schools–and are demanding that the feds crack down on the locals.

Federalism, Compulsion, and School Choice

My recent posting criticizing federal school voucher programs has drawn a critique from Robert Teegarden of the Alliance for School Choice. Here is my response: 

I appreciate Robert and the Alliance taking the time to respond to my position on vouchers, tax credits, and the federal government. I’ve long argued that the school choice movement needs the equivalent of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers to hash out the best policy solutions, and here we are hashing out the proper federal role in market education reform. Excellent.

The first thing I’d like to do is correct some misapprehensions about my views. I do not think, nor have I ever said, that “tax credits… never have any government regulation,” as Robert claimed. I have shown that current tax credit programs impose less regulation on private school instruction than do current voucher programs, and I have argued that tax credits reduce the incentive for regulatory encroachment over time (see the “Conviction, Compulsion, and Conflict” section of the linked page).

Also, I would like to be clear that my opposition to federal school choice programs is not limited to federal vouchers, but includes federal education tax credits as well. I see federal vouchers as a more serious danger than federal tax credits, but neither is advisable.

The arguments, in both cases, are the same: the risk of destroying the entire U.S. independent education sector due to federal regulatory encroachment is simply too great, and federal intervention violates the 10th Amendment because Congress is granted no powers over education under the Constitution.

Robert’s contention that the 10th Amendment allows for federal vouchers – because ”the people” want vouchers and the Amendment reserves power to “the people” – is not persuasive. The express purpose of the 10th Amendment is to forbid Congress from acting outside its constitutional purview, regardless of what voters may be clamoring for at any given time. If the people want to change the Constitution to allow federal vouchers, there is a provision for that in the amendment process. Unless and until the Constitution is amended, Congress is legally bound by it.

In making the regulatory argument, I referred to “the laboratory of federalism.” It’s not my phrase, though, and I shouldn’t have used it. A better way of expressing the issue is to think of the states as market actors competing for businesses and residents. Under the “marketplace of federalism,” families and businesses seeking high quality education can seek out educationally freer states and flee states that mess up their education systems by excessively regulating the private sector. The federal government, by contrast, is a monopolist. Any regulations imposed by it are imposed equally on all schools in every state.

There is no check or balance to mitigate this threat. Robert called me “prescient” for expressing this concern, but the converse is true: I can’t see the future, but my hindsight is 20-20. Having studied dozens of school systems from ancient times to the present, I have found no system of elementary and secondary education funded by the government that did not eventually fall under the government’s pervasive control. Not one.

Robert points to pre-school and higher-education programs that have escaped such suffocating regulation. These are not germane. Historically, government regulation of the content of schooling has been concentrated most severely on the elementary and secondary levels because this is the period during which minds can most easily be shaped. Too much younger and children cannot grasp intellectual and ideological concepts. Too much older and they begin to have minds of their own. The existence of government-funded college and pre-school programs that have escaped extensive regulation does not alter the fact that such minimally regulated programs have seldom existed and have never survived at the elementary and secondary levels.

Robert ends his commentary with the following hopeful statement: “Money going to students is different from money going for institutions….  And like the famed battles for Troy, the ‘curriculum culture wars’ in America will all but cease, for parents will then actually be able to choose a school consistent with their values.”

His hope is unjustified. As I pointed out in the article to which Robert was responding, the Dutch have had “money going to the student” since 1917. This has not eliminated their culture wars. Some liberal Dutch citizens are uncomfortable funding orthodox Islamic voucher schools, and have made efforts to regulate them out of existence. In the wake of the murder of Theo Van Gogh, several schools, Muslim and non-Muslim, were burned to the ground in eye-for-an-eye arsons. Though Muslim voucher schools still exist, they are being increasingly heavily regulated, whether or not they promulgate extremist or hateful views.

It isn’t hard to see similar fault lines in America. A conservative religious school in Florida (one not participating in any of that state’s voucher programs) expelled a student a year or two ago for learning while gay. The student wasn’t “out,” but a teacher got wind of his sexual orientation, asked him about it, and he was expelled when he answered truthfully.

Does anyone think this expulsion would long stand if the school were cashing government voucher checks? Inevitably, liberal-minded folk would campaign for a law forbidding discrimination on such grounds. And would religious conservatives morally opposed to homosexuality be happy about such a law, or happy to fund schools aimed specifically at gay students? Or would they try to pass their own regulations to entrench their own views?

What voucher advocates have yet to acknowledge is that compelling all taxpayers to support every kind of schooling (a government voucher program) is a recipe for the same set of social conflicts as compelling all taxpayers to support a single kind of schooling (the current monopoly system). The only alternatives that avoid this socially Balkanizing compulsion are complete separation of school and state, and non-refundable education tax credits.

As I explained in my piece on federal vouchers, personal use tax credits involve people spending their own money on themselves – no compulsion involved. And tax credits for donations to private scholarship funds allow the donor to chose the recipient organization, also avoiding compulsion.

Finally, tax credits are indeed viable. Robert claims that the donation tax credit funding stream would prove insufficient. Before the rapid spread of state schooling in the mid-1800s, elementary enrollment and literacy were nearly universal among the free population in both England and the United States. That was in large part due to mutual aid societies and philanthropies. It has, in other words, already been done – and done even without the help of a tax credit program. With a tax credit program that allows taxpayers to redirect their funds to scholarship programs at no cost to themselves, universal access to the education marketplace can be achieved far more easily than it was in the early republic.

Robert’s comment that it is somehow unacceptable for low-income families to rely on the goodwill of others fails to recognize that this is exactly the system we have today. This is a democracy. If there were not overwhelming support for high levels of education spending in this country, we wouldn’t have increased inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending by a factor of 14 over the past eighty years. Americans’ commitment to universal education is undeniable, and does not rest on a gun being pointed at the public’s head.

For a further discussion of these points, please see my piece Forging Consensus, and thanks again for engaging in this important discussion.

It Wasn’t Hard to See Coming

Today the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education adopted its final report on reforming America’s ivory tower, and it’s just the sort of document one would expect from a commission stacked with higher education insiders. Indeed, I saw it coming months ago.

The report calls for substantially more taxpayer money to be spent on student aid, promoting “innovation,” and research. It also suggests throwing the doors open for a sweeping “partnership with states and federal agencies” to develop “a national strategy for lifelong learning,” and endorses the creation of a federal database populated with information on every college student in America, whether they receive public aid or not.

Perhaps the only areas where the report does not quite live up to my original expectations are in its sections on testing and “accountability.” It does urge schools to begin measuring student learning using standardized tests, and says the federal government should provide incentives for them to do so, but it stops short of saying outright, as I once feared, that the federal government should require such testing. What eventually put the kibosh on mandatory testing was that many higher education associations expressed big reservations about it, and the commission has tried very hard to please the ivory tower establishment.

Of course, the report’s recommendations are just the beginning. Next comes implementation, and politicians are likely to turn even the commission’s reasonable suggestions into bad policies. For instance, while the commission recommends focusing student aid more on the needy, policymakers are very unlikely to increase aid for the poor without also boosting it for wealthier people whose votes they need. The present student aid system demonstrates that reality perfectly.

Indeed, the corruption of the report’s few good recommendations began even before the document was approved. As I wrote yesterday, the draft which has now been adopted originally contained a passage suggesting that people consider – just consider – using more private loans. But that segment was removed when student advocacy groups protested against it, seemingly on the grounds that students should only get loans backed with money taken from taxpayers.

Which brings me to the ultimate point: No matter what kind of “common good” rhetoric it’s dressed up in, government policy primarily serves entrenched special interests, not the larger “American people.” That is why the only good recommendation this commission could have made would have been to get government out of the ivory tower, and why the recommendations it did make would do just the opposite.

Lessons Learned

A couple of days ago I wrote a surprisingly upbeat blog entry about the third public draft of the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education’s report on reforming the American ivory tower. I should have known better: Today commission chairman Charles Miller removed one of the highlights of the draft, a statement asserting that private sector lending should be a much bigger part of the college funding picture than it currently is.

Apparently, that bright spot – well, bright for anyone other than students who are trying to grab as much taxpayer money as they can possibly get their hands on – produced too much pressure for the chairman. A letter sent to him by the Project on Student Debt opposing the nod to the private sector – which I’ve boiled down to its main points below – illustrates just how persuasive the arguments by student interest groups can be:

  1. Private loans have no limits on interest rates. If overall market rates go up, student loan rates could too!
  2. Private loans have no set limits on the amount students can borrow. Like chickens without a farmer, student borrowers will apparently eat private loan money until they explode.
  3. Private loans don’t include all the ways for students to get out of paying them back that federal loans do. Unlike government loans, where taxpayers get stuck eating the losses when students don’t repay what they borrow, private lenders, it seems, actually want their money back.
  4. Encouraging middle-class students to get private instead of federal loans won’t free up federal resources. Apparently, lots of middle-class kids take federal loans today even though they accrue no benefits from them. So why don’t they just use private loans? Oh, right: Federal loans have artificially low interest rates thanks to being guaranteed with taxpayer money, and federal borrowers can slough off all or part of their debt on the American people.

Sadly, the Project on Student Debt’s kind of “reasoning” has prevailed in higher education policy for decades, and its letter illustrates better than I ever could why the only thing the higher education commission should recommend is that government withdraw completely from the ivory tower. Unfortunately, the chairman’s actions today illustrate another thing better than I ever could: This sort of revolting, taxpayer-robbing, special-interest “logic” almost always prevails in politics, and the commission’s final report will be no different.

Pluralism and School Choice

Allow me to jump into the exchange from a few days back between our own Neal McCluskey and the American Prospect’s Matt Yglesias on science education. One of the key arguments against school choice is that only the government can be entrusted with the dissemination of truth. Matt writes that in both private and public schools:

… children are going to be coerced into doing something or other. Under the circumstances, I think there’s good reason to take a pragmatic attitude – better than children be coerced into learning correct science than incorrect science.

The implication being that government schools are more likely to have correct teachings. (By the way, it’s totally outrageous to say that teaching is “coercive,” just because the kids don’t get to pick what they will be taught.) Neal rightly notes that it’s not always obvious what’s correct. Neal proposed school choice in the first place precisely because government school boards keep trying to get creationism into the curriculum. If there is a single curriculum in a district, then, unless it is remarkably homogenous, there will be some kind of ideological power struggle over control of its contents. Matt seems to assume that the side of “correct science” will tend to win in school board battles, and that public school teachers are somehow less motivated to teach falsehoods about science than private school teachers. It is truly hard to see why.

Take, for example, former Weather Undergroud terrorist Bill Ayers’ attempt to work his communism into the science curriculum through “radical” teacher education:

In 1997, Ayers and his mentor Maxine Greene persuaded Teachers College [Columbia] Press to launch a series of books on social justice teaching, with Ayers as editor and Greene serving on the editorial board (along with Rashid Khalidi, loyal supporter of the Palestinian cause and the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University). Twelve volumes have appeared so far, including one titled Teaching Science for Social Justice.

Teaching science for social justice? Let Teachers College professor Angela Calabrese Barton, the volume’s principal author, try to explain: “The marriages between capitalism and education and capitalism and science have created a foundation for science education that emphasizes corporate values at the expense of social justice and human dignity.” The alternative? “Science pedagogy framed around social justice concerns can become a medium to transform individuals, schools, communities, the environment, and science itself, in ways that promote equity and social justice. Creating a science education that is transformative implies not only how science is a political activity but also the ways in which students might see and use science and science education in ways transformative of the institutional and interpersonal power structures that play a role in their lives.” If you still can’t appreciate why it’s necessary for your child’s chemistry teacher to teach for social justice, you are probably hopelessly wedded to reason, empiricism, individual merit, and other capitalist and post-colonialist deformities.

Columbia’s Teacher’s College, it is worth emphasizing, is one of the most prestigious and influential schools of education in the U.S. As you’ll see reading Sol Stern’s eye-opening article, Bill Ayres is a man who looks with admiration to the example of tryannical murders like Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, and he would like to get teachers to push their ideology into the science curriculum. Stern goes on to discuss Eric Gutstein, a public school math teacher, who incorporates socialist politics into his math lectures.

It’s odious that government schools should provide a platform for either creationist pseudoscience or vicious, pseudo-intellectual anti-liberalism. But there is simply no way around this if government insists on providing, as well as financing, education. There is no way creationist types are going to stand for Ayres’ and Gutstein’s nonsense, and vice versa, ensuring that curriculum will be politicized. And there is no mechanism that makes it likely that the truth will win. Average parents, who just wants their kids to get a decent education, and don’t have strong feelings about the origins of life, or their oppressed relationship to capital, aren’t going to be on fire to make sure only the truth is taught. Their kids just get stuck with whoever wins the fight, or caught in a balance of powers unrelated to their interests. You don’t solve the problem of ideological pluralism simply by hoping that the government school boards and teachers will get it right. They clearly often don’t, ensuring that everyone has to learn a few favorite falsehoods.

Worse yet, often nobody wins the ideological fight. Opposed ideological agendas often don’t balance each other out, but simply create a pedagogical muddle. Education schools, when not teaching “Proletarian Revolt through Algebra,” teach a great deal of insipid therapeutic pablum, and textbooks afraid of saying anything anybody might possibly disagree with often avoid saying anything at all. Kids in government schools too often end up knowing nothing, not knowing the wrong thing. I do not believe that by not teaching intelligent design the government schools are therefore churning out little Richard Dawkinses by the thousands.

I’ll happily run the risk of a few creationist and Marxist private schools at the margins if that’s what it takes to create a system that actually succeeds at educating children. The surpassingly small minority who get a boatload of ideological hooey will at least be capable of speaking intelligently about Leviticus or The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. That, at least, is something.