Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.

“Private Schools Better. NCES Study Bunk.” — Harvard Profs

Last month, a study by the National Center for Education Statistics reported that private schools consistently outscore public ones, but that their advantage goes away after controlling for differences in student and school characteristics.

In my response to that study, I pointed out that some of the authors’ statistical controls were incorrect and others were misapplied, undermining their conclusion.

Elena Llaudet and Paul Peterson of Harvard University have now run the numbers after correcting for these errors, and the verdict is in: the private school academic advantage is real.

That said, the central point of my earlier blog post remains: the current 10 percent niche of private schools in this country does not constitute a true competitive education industry. Yes, independent schools outpeform government schools, but according to the last International Adult Literacy Survey, nearly a quarter of 16-to-25 year-old Americans are functionally illiterate.

We don’t need a system that’s a little better than this. We need a system that’s a whole lot better. We need real market reform of our entire education sector.

Ivory Tower Blueprint, Take Three

Late last week, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education released the third – and probably last – public draft of its report on reforming the American ivory tower. It will likely submit its final report to the secretary in September.

Just like the previous two drafts, number three includes a lot of bad ideas, including one sweeping proposal that all by itself justifies the report’s rejection:

The Secretary of Education, in partnership with states and other federal agencies, should develop a national strategy that would result in better and more flexible learning opportunities, especially for adult learners.

Imagine the kind of mischief policymakers could justify on the grounds that they are creating “better…learning opportunities”? No commission should ever give Washington such a broad license to legislate.

That said, there are a couple of things in draft three that differ markedly from drafts of old, including one that says something I never, ever thought I’d see in a federal report:

A private sector education lending market has fully developed (separate and distinct from loans subsidized by the federal government and made by private financial institutions), which provides a variety of competitive lending products offering many options for funding education expenses. The Commission notes that wider recognition and wider utilization of these options by many families would result in the private sector providing more funding for higher education and in freeing scarce public funds to focus on aid for economically disadvantaged students and families.

A report by a federal commission on higher education that promotes the use of private lending options? Is it April 1st?

And that’s not all. Draft three also notes much more emphatically than the previous two the deleterious, inflationary effects of having tons of third-party funding – primarily, money forced out of the wallets of Joe and Jane Taxpayer – pumped into colleges:

A significant obstacle to better cost controls is the fact that a large share of the cost of higher education is subsidized by public funds (local, state and federal) and by private contributions. These third-party payments tend to insulate what economists would call producers – colleges and universities – from the consequences of their own spending decisions, while consumers – students – also lack incentives to make decisions based on their own limited resources. Just as the U.S. healthcare finance system fuels rising costs by shielding consumers from the consequences of their own spending choices, the high level of subsidies to higher education also provides perverse spending incentives at times.

Now, let me make this clear: If the commission’s final report is essentially unchanged from draft three, it will be a bad thing, encouraging federal and state governments to impose numerous new rules and regulations on America’s ivory tower, which despite all its faults is still the best in the world. At least, though, draft three doesn’t ignore either the root causes of, or free-market solutions for, higher education’s problems.

That alone is a reason for optimism.

Not as Easy as Right and Wrong

Over at The American Prospect, Matthew Yglesias takes issue with the assertion I made yesterday that if Kansas is ever going to have peace over creationism and evolution, parents must be given the right to take their public education dollars and choose their children’s schools. Instead of forcing parents to support – and constantly fight to control – one school system, why not let them choose the institutions they want?

Yglesias argues that whether it’s parents or government that decides what children will be taught, kids will have no choice in the matter. The question to him, then, is “who is likely to teach most children the right stuff?” If it’s government, then there’s no need for choice.

That sounds reasonable enough. That is, until you consider how incredibly hard it often is to know, and to get people to agree on, what constitutes “the right stuff.” Creationists, after all, are just as sure that they are right about Darwin as evolutionists think themselves to be.

Of course, in education, Darwin is just the beginning: Is phonics-based instruction the right or wrong way to teach reading? Should American history be taught in a “traditional” way that focuses on the nation’s great achievements, or is it right to focus on the country’s flaws? What amount of time should students spend studying fine art instead of, say, physics?  Is it wrong for a student newspaper to run an article critical of the school’s principal? And so on…

Clearly, when it comes to countless disputes in education, what is truly right or truly wrong is very difficult to know. With that in mind, we must answer the question: Is it better that government impose one idea of what’s right on all children, or that parents be able to seek freely what they think is right for their own kids?

At the risk of contradicting myself, I think the latter is the obvious right answer.

Federal Education Tax Credits. So Close, and yet…

Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) has introduced a federal education tax credit bill (“America’s Class Act”) modeled on a program in his home state. The Pennsylvania program is indeed an excellent concept, allowing businesses to make tax-creditable donations to private scholarship funds that in turn help low income families gain access to independent schools. Donation tax credit programs such as this are one of the two critical components in an ideal market education policy (the other being a personal tax credit for parents who choose independent schools for their children).

Unfortuntalely, the unmitigated merits of this policy at the state level are heavily mitigated at the federal level. First, because the Federal government is accorded no role in education whatsoever by our Constitution (“oh, that old thing?!”). And second, because any regulatory encroachment of the independent education sector by the federal government will suffocate schools from sea to sea, leaving nowhere for truly independent schools to thrive.

I’ve already made this case with respect to vouchers, and while I’m more fond of tax credits as a market education reform, federal involvement in this area is still problematic.

New Higher Ed Think Tank in Town

There is a new group joining the national debate over higher education, and unlike many student advocates and higher education associations, its leader, economist Richard Vedder, knows that pouring more money into colleges and universities just expands the ivory tower, it doesn’t make the tower better.

Welcome, Center for College Affordability and Productivity! It’s nice to have you with us.