Topic: Education and Child Policy

Spelling Disaster for Higher Ed

In a speech at the National Press Club yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings made the prophecy come true.

In November – not long after Spellings announced the creation of her Commission on the Future of Higher Education – I wrote the following in a National Review Online op-ed:

In September, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced the formation of a commission tasked with designing a “national strategy for higher education” to prepare us for the 21st century.

The commission is composed entirely of people in academia, government or big business, all of whom benefit when taxpayer money is shoveled into higher education. Its recommendations are therefore almost a foregone conclusion: The federal government should spend more on student aid supposedly to ensure, as Spellings demands, that we have a workforce for the 21st century, and on “basic” research that businesses want done, but on which they would rather not risk their own money.

Of course, with a unified national strategy two more things will come: federal control of academia and an end to the competition for students that has driven innovation in American higher education and made it the envy of the world.

In her speech yesterday, Spellings confirmed many of my fears from November, calling for more federal student aid, new federal databases populated with information on every student and college in America, and a federally funded program that would bribe schools into making all their students take standardized tests in order, supposedly, to measure their “learning outcomes.” And Spellings opened the door to do even more than that, announcing that she will be holding a “summit” this spring to discuss each and every proposal in the commission’s final report, which includes demands for substantially increased federal research spending, and a blanket charge to create a national “strategy for lifelong learning.”

What Spellings glossed over – as did the commission’s report – was the cause of higher education’s most basic problem, skyrocketing prices. Why? Probably because the federal government is to blame. Federal financial aid enables students to demand ever-more expensive college goodies, fueling, rather than grounding, the college cost rocket. Indeed, as George Leef of the John William Pope Center explains in a new study, it is abundant government aid, as well as politicians’ incessant and specious declarations that almost everyone needs to go to college, that drive almost all of higher education’s major problems. In addition to pushing up prices, government aid and political rhetoric have convinced woefully unprepared students to pursue schooling they can’t handle, fueled rampant “credentialism,” and rendered actual learning in college largely irrelevant.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of Spellings’ efforts to control higher education, however, is that she openly touts federal work in elementary and secondary education as the model for what needs to be done in higher ed.

Maybe I’d better repeat that: She openly touts federal work in elementary and secondary education as the model for what needs to be done in higher education.

Apparently, our stagnant, embarrassing, public K-12 schools, which the federal No Child Left Behind Act has only made worse by encouraging states to lower academic standards and hide failures, have a lot to teach our colleges and universities, which are, if nothing else, hands down the most popular destinations in the world for international students.

Hopefully, it’s not too late for colleges and universities to realize what they’re heading for, and fight federal assaults tooth and nail. Today, we will begin to get an idea whether this will happen, both as reactions to Spellings’ plans hit the media, and at a special forum on overhauling the ivory tower to be held right here at Cato.

The prophecy about Spellings’ proposals has come true, but there’s still hope that those proposals won’t become reality.

Federal Voucher Advocates Ignore the Risks

Conservative school choice advocates seem almost unanimous in their desire for federal vouchers. Writing in National Review Online, the Fordham Foundation’s Michael Petrilli supports such a program on the grounds that it would save urban Catholic schools from insolvency. I couldn’t agree more that Catholic schools have been an invaluable educational lifeline for many families, and are eminently worth saving. But I am mystified by the right’s apparent lack of concern about the risks of federal school choice programs.

And I’m not just talking about the 10th Amendment’s proscription against federal education policymaking, which Bill Bennett and Rod Paige dismissed last week as “a naïve commitment to states’ rights.” I’m talking primarily about the sobering examples of national voucher programs in countries like the Netherlands and Sweden.

While these programs are superior, in many respects, to education monopolies such as our own, they suggest that federal voucher programs bring with them stifling federal regulation. In Sweden, the regulation was there from the start, while in the Netherlands it built up inexorably over time. There are no examples anywhere in the world of federal governments extending funding to private schools without also extending federal control – whether immediately or gradually. The end result is that independent schools lose their independence, and any hope for the rise of a truly competitive education industry is lost.

Why are conservatives ignoring this risk? Perhaps they no longer see federal regulatory encroachment as a risk at all. Many have specifically advocated increased federal intervention in the content of instruction (see this debate on federal standards between Michael Petrilli and Cato’s own Neal McCluskey, or Neal’s current piece in NRO).

There are alternatives. State level school choice policies are preferable to federal ones, and funding universal school choice with private dollars (through non-refundable tax credits) is preferable to doing it with government dollars. Short version of this argument here. Long version here.

Educational Excellence Through Central Planning?

In a Washington Post op-ed, former education secretaries Rod Paige and Bill Bennett call for a federal education testing regime. States that don’t like the idea would be free to keep their own standards, but only under the “rules and meddling of federal bureaucrats” that already takes place under the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB). What they’re saying to states is this: why don’t we replace those NCLB handcuffs – that you might slip out of anyway – with a nice new straightjacket.”

In trying to sell this idea, they acknowledge that the Constitution makes no mention of education – and hence, by the 10th Amendment, leaves power over it in the hands of the states and the people – but then dismiss adherence to that Amendment as “a naïve commitment to states’ rights.” It is federal officials like these, keep in mind, who would oversee the standards and tests in question. I can see it now. “Guess what I learned in school today, daddy: ‘The Bill of Rights is for wussies!’”

Even more puzzling, the secretaries acknowledge the virtues of competitive education markets in their double plus ungood argument for central planning. As a champion of the Western literary canon, surely Mr. Bennett has turned the pages of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which begins by explaining that markets depend on specialization and the division of labor. Imposing a single set of federal standards and tests would crush the diversity that markets require.

Most short-sightedly, the secretaries’ simply assume that a new federal standards and testing regime would necessarily meet with their approval. They make that gross assumption at a time when their own party’s control of congress is in doubt, and after acknowledging that “most states have deployed mediocre standards.”

In a nutshell, it’s a bad argument for a bad idea.

Remind me again, which of the two major parties stands for limited government?

ACLU Sues to Limit Educational Liberty in AZ

Arizona passed a series of new school choice bills this June, and the ACLU has now filed suit to stop one of them from being implemented. For more than six years, individual Arizonan taxpayers have been able to claim a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on donations they make to private Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs). The SGOs, in turn, help families to pay tuition at the independent school of their choice. The recent bill that the ACLU is challenging extends that donation tax credit to businesses as well as individuals.

On what grounds does the ACLU claim to oppose this policy, you ask? They assert that “it violates state constitutional provisions prohibiting public funding for religious schools and mandating that the state provide a general and uniform public school system.”

The first objection is not likely to hold water, given that the AZ Supreme Court already ruled, in Kotterman v. Killian, that tax credits do not constitute public funding.

The second challenge is more interesting, having been inspired by the astonishingly inventive Florida Supreme Court ruling that struck down that state’s A+ voucher program early this year. Will foes of educational freedom find this argument a winner in AZ? Not knowing much about the AZ Justices, it’s hard to say. The argument certainly did not work with Wisconsin’s Supreme Court when it was used against Milwaukee’s voucher program during the 1990s.

What’s most interesting about all this is, however, is not the details of the legal arguments but the fact that opponents have been reduced to arguing about such minutia. In states where school choice programs are established and running, they tend to be very popular with the families who are able to participate. Hence, opponents find it hard to convince people that choice is bad – they have to try to show that some legal “i” has gone undotted to have any hope of herding the public back into state monopoly schools. In the Florida case, the plaintiffs openly acknowledged that the success of the voucher program was utterly immaterial to their argument.

Opponents of school choice don’t care whether or not educational liberty helps families. They are ideologically wedded to the status quo monopoly and will seek to preserve it by any means necessary.

How this benefits the American people, or advances “civil liberties,” I really can’t imagine.

Hopelessly Devoted to HIM?

SMU Biblical studies professor Mark Chancey has just penned a study of Bible teaching in Texas Public Schools (.pdf). The report concludes that “the public school courses currently taught in Texas often fail to meet minimal academic standards for teacher qualifications; curriculum, and academic rigor; promote one faith perspective over all others; and push an ideological agenda that is hostile to religious freedom, science and public education.”

Chancey’s most damning charge: “Most Bible courses are taught as religious and devotional classes that promote one faith perspective over all others.” If true, that, of course. would be unconstitutional. (Nadine Strossen, call your office.)

Here’s a thought: Rather than forcing all Americans to pay for a one-size-fits-few government monopoly that inevitably creates legal and cultural conflict over the curriculum, why not institute a school system that would give both parents and other taxpayers real educational choice? This could easily be done by combining and enlarging the existing personal use and scholarship donation tax credit programs that exist in states like Pennsylvania and Arizona. A short exposition of the idea appears here, and a more comprehensive one is available here.

Cato’s Neal McCluskey will be publishing a study of the endless school wars caused by our state-run education monopolies later this year. Stay tuned.

Glad to be Proven Wrong

In a recent op-ed for the Indianapolis Star, I wrote that Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP) had a vested interest in finding school choice to be unpopular with voters — because it was a part of the University’s Department of Education, and that department could well be rendered obsolete under a large scale school choice program. As it turns out, the Center is largely financially independent of the Department, and so would not likely go down with the ship under a voucher or education tax credit program.

I also expressed concern about the Center’s pattern of polling on school choice, which seemed to be moving away from the sort of neutral, general question that elicits more favorable responses, and toward narrower questions that elicit lower support. After speaking with CEEP’s director, Jonathan Plucker, I’m informed that they already have plans to ask their initial general voucher question once again, on their next survey, and so the appearance of a move away from such questions was illusory.

I’m delighted to hear both of these facts, should have taken the time to obtain them in advance, and owe Dr. Plucker and his staff an apology.

Now if Phi Delta Kappan, the publisher of an annual nationwide education survey, is willing to return to THEIR original voucher question, I will be delighted to apologize to them as well. Still not holding my breath on that one.

Private Voucher Schools Less Racially Segregated

Reaffirming earlier research, new studies of the voucher programs in Cleveland (.pdf) and Milwaukee (.pdf) find that private voucher schools are less racially segregated than the public schools in their districts.

This should come as no surprise. Economist Thomas Nechyba (.pdf) has shown that public schools’ geographically-based student assignment system lowers not only school-level integration, but neighborhood integration as well. By de-coupling school choice from place of residence, considerably higher levels of integration become possible and, as the research shows, actually take place.

As in so many other cases, the argument that government-run schooling is necessary to promote integration is precisely backward. Government schools are an impediment to integration and to the achievement of minority students.

Anyone who truly believes in the ideals of public education should support the free market reforms that can actually fulfill those ideals, and abandon the government-run monopoly system that so consistently fails to advance them.