Topic: Education and Child Policy

The Same Problem Up North

A report on the state of Canadian higher education has our northern neighbors in a bit of an uproar. It seems that to accumulate political support, policymakers in Canada have been taking college aid originally intended for truly poor Canadians and giving it in gobs to the not-so-needy middle class.

“Governments must stop treating student aid as a cheap forum for buying middle-class votes and once again treat it as a way to help those without means,” declare authors Sean Junor and Alex Usher in the Educational Policy Institute’s Student Aid Time-Bomb.

Boy could we stand to learn that lesson down here! Look no further than the Democratic Leadership Council’s American Dream Initiative to see how American politicians barter for middle-class votes with promises of free-flowing aid. Who cares that huge government giveaways just keep driving up the price of college – we need votes, and we need them now!

Unfortunately, as much as we might like it to be different, such is the nature of the student aid game. You just can’t get aid for the poor without giving a lot more away to the “middle class,” a group that is always defined broadly enough that a critical political mass of Americans will get a piece of bribery pie, whether they need it or not.

Be warned, then, Americans (and Canadians) who intend to help the poor through government “charity” (like, say, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education): You may honestly want to expand aid only for “the truly needy,” but politics will inevitably ruin your plans.

Must Voucher Programs Include Religious Schools?

That’s the question that several Maine families and the Institute for Justice have put before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Maine has had a voucher-like “tuitioning” program for well over a century. During most of that period, it allowed participating famillies to choose either a secular or religious school. Then, in 1980, the state decided it had been acting unconstitutionally. Maine’s Attorney general told the legislature that its tuitioning program violated the First Amendment’s proscription against establishing religion. Quick to obey, the legislature passed a law ending the right of voucher-receiving parents to choose religious schools.

A number of court cases have since tried to undo the legislature’s actions. These efforts gained momentum in 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that voucher programs do NOT violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

From that point on, it clearly has been legal for Maine to once again allow the participation of religious schools, but the state has elected not to do so. A group of Maine parents have thus joined with the Institute for Justice this week and petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to force the state to permit religious schools to participate.

Their legal argument is that, if a state operates a voucher program, the equal protection and free exercise clauses require it to treat religious and non-religious schools equally, allowing parents to choose either.

That argument has merit. It is discriminatory to exclude religious schools simply because of their religiosity.

But the plaintiff’s solution is not without problems of its own.

If they are successful, parents who object to funding religious schools will nevertheless be compelled to do so. While this sort of compulsion has not been ruled to constitute a federally unconstitutional infringement of taxpayers’ rights, it is nevertheless a bad idea. Compulsion to fund instruction that some taxpayers find objectionable is a recipe for social conflict – a conflict that can currently be seen in the Netherlands over the funding of some conservative Islamic voucher schools.

Fortunately, there is an alternative: The use of education tax credits instead of vouchers to ensure universal access to the public or private schools of parents’ choice. These programs can avoid virtually all of the compulsion that makes public schools a social battleground, and that remains a concern under government voucher programs. See the link above for a short explanation of the tax credit advantage, or this paper for a more substantial one.

Furthermore, even if the parents’ suit prevails, it does not mean that all will be rosy for state-level school voucher programs. All but three states (and Maine is one of those three) have their own constitutional provisions against government funding going to religious institutions. If the U.S. Supreme Court forces all voucher programs to include religious schools, some states may be obliged by their state constitutions to shut down or forego voucher programs rather than allow them to operate with the participation of religious schools.

This, in other words, is a messy, and unnecessary, road to travel. There is a better option: education tax credits.

Trust Me, It’s Just Not Fair

Apparently, if your subject is how you are being victimized by the nation’s higher education system, personal anecdotes and unsupported assertions are all it takes to get in the Washington Post. At least that’s what can be surmised from “Put Grad School Within My Grasp,” a one-woman pity party in which Sui Lang Panoke, an American University graduate student, grieves over having to pay too much of her own education bill, and declares that “a federal need-based grant program for graduate students must be created.”

Ordinarily, when discussing such low-fact, high-emotion articles as Miss Panoke’s, I would put together one argument rather than tackling individual points. Unfortunately, there’s just too much worthy of comment in Miss Panoke’s piece to let any little bit slip by. I hope, therefore, you’ll pardon my dealing with her lament one piece at a time… 

1. The Introduction: “Is access to graduate education in America exclusively for the upper class? As a first-year graduate student struggling to make ends meet, I believe the answer is yes.”

Not a good start. Miss Panoke offers nothing – not a single fact or figure – to back up her claim that graduate school has become an exclusive preserve of the upper class. And how could she: According to the most recent available data from the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 27 percent of graduate students receive means-tested, subsidized Stafford Loans. That means that at the absolute least more than a quarter of American graduate students cannot be upper-class, and no doubt the percentage of non-wealthy grad students is much higher than that.

2. I’m not rich: “I have no college fund, trust or inheritance.”

The assumption here seems to be that anyone who can afford graduate school on their own must be loaded. Of course, a “college fund” could just come from saving over the years, which brings us to…

3. I didn’t get a job after I got my bachelor’s: “I don’t independently qualify for private student loans because I lack the substantial credit or employment history that is required, and I do not have the luxury of having a willing and eligible co-signer.”

Assuming Miss Panoke knew graduate school wasn’t cheap before enrolling, she probably should have worked after getting her bachelor’s degree and saved money for grad school, which would have enabled her to both establish that crucial employment history and make grad school a little more affordable. But wait…

4. I need a graduate degree just to get a job: “Today’s job market is becoming more and more competitive. Bachelor’s degrees don’t carry the weight they used to. It’s almost necessary to have a graduate, doctorate or law degree to compete with the current highly qualified pool of candidates.”

While Miss Panoke is right that bachelor’s degrees have become less meaningful over the years – largely as a result of government pushing everyone into college, and colleges giving out diplomas that signify less and less learning – does she really think everyone has to have an advanced degree to get a job? Unfortunately, she never tells the reader what her own bachelor’s degree is in, but if she majored in anything the least bit marketable, employment opportunities are out there. Indeed, as the National Association of Colleges and Employers recently reported, the employment picture for recent bachelor’s degree recipients is actually very bright.

5. Dude, where are my scholarships? “While I have applied for a few scholarships, I have yet to be awarded one.”

How does Miss Panoke define “a few scholarships?” One? Two? Three? Who knows! And why hasn’t she been awarded any? Was she not qualified? Were winners randomly assigned? Without a lot more information, the reader can’t tell whether the problem is “the system” – as Miss Panoke asserts – or the student herself.

6. There just isn’t enough scholarship money: “Scholarships represent less than 4 percent of the total aid available each year for college students, and much less than that for graduate students.”

At least there’s a stat here, but Miss Panoke cites no source for it, and it is of questionable accuracy.

Using College Board data, in the 2004-05 school year private and employer grants – which might be what Miss Panoke used to calculate scholarship aid – constituted 5 percent of total aid, a little higher than Miss Panoke’s number. But that is really only the tip of the non-government-aid iceberg; Add institutional aid to private and employer grants, and the scholarship share of total aid goes all the way up to 22 percent.

As for graduate students, specific data is hard to find, but given Miss Panoke’s low-balling of undergraduate scholarships–that, and the fact that over 60 percent of graduate students get some kind of aid to attend school–I’ll assume she’s overstating the severity of the problem for grad students.

7. Our Marxism isn’t working: “We are failing to redistribute the wealth in America, and the divide between the upper and lower classes is widening.”

Um, I’ll let this one speak for itself.

8. There’s a less expensive school? “The writer is a first-year graduate student at American University working toward a master’s degree in public administration.”

Wait. American University? This starving student couldn’t have pursued her master’s anywhere cheaper? 

Of course she could have, and right in the Washington, D.C., area. Indeed, with tuition at $1048 per credit hour, AU is roughly 2.5 times more expensive than in-state tuition at Virginia’s George Mason University, and 1.4 times more expensive than out-of-state tuition. Similarly, AU’s tuition is 2.2 times higher than in-state tuition at the University of Maryland, and 1.4 times higher than out-of-state tuition.

9. It Takes Tax Money to Make Tax Money: As frustrating as it is to read Miss Panoke’s fact-free argument for why taxpayers should be forced to shell out more for her schooling, the real kicker is that she wants to use that schooling to get a public sector career (assuming that’s what she’ll use her master’s in public administration for). So, in essence, what she really wants is for taxpayers to finance an education designed to help her get even more money out of them later!

Unfortunately this last point, unlike Miss Panoke’s piece, makes all too much intuitive sense. Read more of the complaints of self-proclaimed victims of American higher education like Miss Panoke, and it will be clear: Their ultimate dream is to be supported, in perpetuity, by the American taxpayer.

… and the Banana Republic for which it Stands

From the office of U.S. Rep. Skelton (D - Mo.):

On July 19, the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation to bar all federal courts from hearing cases related to the interpretation of, or the validity under the Constitution, of the Pledge of Allegiance, or its recitation. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate.

This bill should be unconstitutional. To protect the separation of powers, Congress should NOT be able to redefine the duties of the judicial branch and curtail judicial review without amending the Constitution. Otherwise, we could well see a proliferation of court-free zones in which the power of Congress becomes absolute. Wouldn’t that be special.

This insane bit of legislation is of course meant to ensure that public schools can mandate the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, which (since 1954) has included the words “under God.”

Is it not embarrassingly ironic to mandate the reading of a pledge that nominally guarantees “liberty… for all,” particularly when that Pledge takes a position on the existence of God?

This isn’t Freedonia, folks, it’s America. Why don’t we try teaching children about liberty by actually, well, respecting it?

You Can Get a Job Without a Degree?

It seems that everyone in the ivory tower is declaring that it will soon be almost impossible to get a good job without first buying their product. Perhaps foremost among these college salespeople are members of the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, who in the most recent public draft of their proposal to create a “national strategy” for higher education declare that:

The value of a postsecondary credential for future employment and earnings is expected to rise. Ninety percent of the fastest-growing jobs in the new knowledge-driven market economy require some postsecondary education. Job categories with the fastest expected growth in the next decade require postsecondary education; those with the greatest expected decline require only on-the-job training.

That sure sounds like the best way to avoid a low-paying, dead-end career is to run, not walk, to your friendly neighborhood college or university and get that bachelor’s degree! But is the scenario accurate? According to a recent piece on CareerBuilder.com, maybe not:

Though it was once conventional wisdom that you needed to have a four-year college degree to be successful, many employment experts believe that maxim has become myth. While a college education increases a worker’s chances of earning more money, it’s certainly not the only reliable path to well-paid and rewarding work….[A]ccording to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, eight of the top 10 fastest-growing occupations through 2014 do not require a bachelor’s degree. And these jobs, which include health technology, plumbing, firefighter and automotive repair, are less vulnerable to outsourcing.

So which is it? In the oh-so-near future, will you or won’t you need a college degree to avoid having to live in a corrugated steel hut subsisting on saltines?

The truth is that no one knows: As politicians and economic forecasters have proven time and again, with billions of people worldwide conducting countless business transactions all the time, no one can predict with any certainty what the future will hold. We can, however, confidently predict one thing: Denizens of the ivory tower will themselves get better jobs when increasing numbers of people consume their products, and when politicians give them ever-greater amounts of taxpayer money.

These facts, more than anything else, should make everyone suspicious of ubiquitous college-or-bust predictions.

Subtlety Lost on Charter Schools

In Atlanta, a small charter school condemned to death yesterday by the board of education is providing one final lesson: While charters allow some of the nuanced accountability provided by the free market to work, too often it’s the wrecking ball of government that renders the final verdict.

The doomed school — the Achieve Academy in southeast Atlanta — started in 2003 as an affiliate of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), a highly regarded network of schools known for their longer days, slavishly devoted teachers, strict discipline, and tremendous success at educating kids in some of the poorest areas of the country.

The KIPP name — like well regarded brand names in all kinds of industries — gave Achieve instant credibility. Over a few years, however, it became clear that Achieve was not living up to KIPP’s standards: It had enrolled too few students to fully implement the KIPP model, and it faced significant financial and leadership problems.

In December 2005, KIPP ended its affiliation with Achieve. It was essentially free-market accountability at work: By separating from Achieve, KIPP made it clear that the school was not up to the program’s high standards, while ultimately leaving it up to parents to determine whether or not they were getting the results that they wanted from the school.

KIPP’s actions, importantly, did not mean that Achieve was a failing school. At the very least, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Achieve’s test results were higher than scores at several of the schools to which its students would go if it closed. Moreover, many parents loved Achieve:

Marsha Ivey said she will try to home school daughter Michaela Bailey, 12, rather than enroll her in King Middle School, the traditional school in her neighborhood. Michaela has blossomed at Achieve from an average student who once struggled in math. “She’s been pushed to her limits,” Ivey said.

Unfortunately, unlike KIPP, in the final analysis the Atlanta School Board couldn’t tailor the accountability it meted out to fit Achieve’s track record. It couldn’t issue subtle punishments and rewards like a market would deliver through the free decisions of parents or organizations like KIPP. It either had to close Achieve, or let it stay open. Sadly for many Achieve students, it went with the former.

Boldly Buying Votes

Yesterday, at a news conference featuring New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) unveiled “a bold new plan” for American higher education. The American Dream Initiative would “award states $150 billion over 10 years to reduce tuition and increase graduation rates”; consolidate several federal tax breaks into “a single, refundable $3,000 college tuition tax credit”; and bolster “accountability” by instituting federal price controls.

What terrific, bold ideas these are! First, plow even more government money into a system that has grown obese on taxpayer funds, then throw government “accountability” on top of it, creating a groundbreaking socialist blend of wealth redistribution and government control!

Of course, in reality there’s nothing bold or new about anything in the DLC’s proposal; politicians have been dumping huge loads of money into higher education for decades, and proposing price controls for years. No, far from being “bold,” the American Dream Initiative is just another disgusting attempt to buy American votes by politicians who believe that a big enough dollar sign, wrapped in just enough lofty rhetoric, is the key to political power.