Topic: Education and Child Policy

Rube Goldberg, Call Your Office

In a recent blog post, I mentioned L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s quest for control over his city’s public schools.

Well, he got it. Sort of.

After concessions to appease both the teachers’ unions and the school board, the L.A. school district chain of command will soon look like it was designed by Rube Goldberg. On acid.

The Mayor will have more or less complete control over a dozen or so especially troubled schools, and veto power over the Superintendency. The superintendent will gain budgeting powers, except over the union employee contract (which is, of course, the biggest budget item). Teachers and principals will be made no more accountable to parents, but they will gain the power to set their schools’ curricula. The board will negotiate the union contract – except of course that they will lose control over what teachers actually teach. Oy vey.

Had Villaraigosa won the supreme authortity he was seeking, it would have meant a transfer of monopoly power from the board to the mayor, and would have done nothing for the city’s kids. The deal that has been cobbled together amounts to a monopolist with multiple personality disorder. Its prospects are, if anything, even bleaker.

What L.A. needs is for power to be returned to parents. The educational chain of command should involve two parties: the school and the family. If the school fails to measure up, the family should be able to easily move its children elsewhere.

Any other “accountability reform” is self-serving political quackery.

China Syndrome

Higher education policy is being driven by the assumption that to compete in the global economy, especially against burgeoning powerhouses like China, the United States will need a lot more college graduates. It’s the foundation of President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative, and the ivory tower’s justification for demanding ever more taxpayer dollars.

Ironically, China itself illustrates the pitfalls of having the government set education policies based on predictions for the future. Several sources have reported unrest among Chinese college students and recent graduates, whose unhappiness appears to have a single underlying cause. From today’s New York Times:

In 1998 the government encouraged a vast expansion in college-level education. Hundreds of new colleges were founded almost overnight to accommodate millions of new students thought to be needed as engineers, bankers, traders and marketing experts in the fast-growing economy.

So what happened?

The number of college graduates has multiplied fivefold in the last seven years, to an estimated 4.1 million this year. But at least 60 percent of that number are having trouble finding jobs, according to the National Development and Reform Commission….

As I wrote in a recent op-ed, don’t believe the hype: Special interests and politicians will try to scare you about the future economy in order to take your money. But as China itself has shown, the only thing we can predict with any reliability is that the government’s predictions will almost certainly be wrong.

School Choice Programs Proliferate in Arizona

The AZ legislature has been busy. Back in the spring, it decided to allow businesses to take a tax credit for donations to tuition scholarship organizations. These organizations help low-income families pay for tuition at independent schools. The bad news is that the legislature originally capped the total value of such creditable donations at a mere $5 million annually. The good news is that they just doubled the cap to $10 million, and put it on a track for reaching $21 million within four years.

Lawmakers also created two new voucher programs: one for disabled students and another for children in foster care.

Not everybody is happy about it, but the families who will benefit from these programs are lucky indeed. And with the passage of these bills, Arizona inches closer to the time when every family in the state will be able to easily choose the public or independent school best suited to their kids.

One thing to watch out for: while education tax credits have already survived constitutional challenge in Arizona, vouchers have not. The two new voucher programs may well be challenged by the public school employee unions and their fellow travelers on state constitutional grounds, and if so the outcome is not at all clear.

Even if the voucher programs are challenged and struck down by the courts, however, a combination of donation and personal use tax credits can provide universal access to the education marketplace.

The future is freedom. The monopolists just haven’t realized it yet.

Chamber Shows Villalobos the Door

For the first time in its 90 year history, the Florida Chamber of Commerce has pulled the plug on its backing for a political candidate. State Sen. Alex Villalobos, who received the Chamber’s endorsement in 2005, was dropped today because of his votes on several key issues. Paramount among them: his opposition to school choice.

The only surprise is that it took so long. Business leaders are beginning to understand that our state-run education monopolies are just as harmful—if not more so—than monpolies in any other field.

Let’s hope other chambers of commerce follow Florida’s lead.

Nothing Laughable about Student Aid Mess

Over at The Huffington Post, Anya Kamenetz belittles a recent op-ed I had on Fox News about higher education. “Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute got Fox News.com to print a laughable retort to the Page One USA Today story last week on student debt,” Kamenetz writes. 

Actually, my laughable retort to USA Today’s article was in a letter that the newspaper printed last week. The Fox News piece was more of a laughable response to several higher education myths, though that included assertions like the one in USA Today that student aid is shrinking. Happily, Ms. Kamenetz’s piece offers an opportunity to do a little more hilarious misinformation busting.

First, while agreeing that the figures I cite in my Fox News piece are accurate – aid per-student aid really has been growing, including grant aid that students don’t have to pay back – Kamenetz responds that the maximum Pell Grant hasn’t risen since 2003, as if that somehow shows that my conclusions about overall aid are actually wrong.

Unfortunately, this is the standard response from people who want to see an endless flow of taxpayer dollars poured into students’ pockets. Of course, it makes no sense. It’s like saying that even though per-person steak consumption increased between 1996 and 2006, and people added a whole lot of new items to their diets in addition to steak, more people are starving today than 10 years ago because steak eating recently stagnated.

Having played the Pell Grant gambit, Kamenetz next asserts that on a per-student basis, state support for higher education is at a 25-year low, part of a trend that has led to increasing tuition costs. She cites a report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers to substantiate her claim, a report that does indeed show that in 2005 the average, inflation-adjusted, per-student public expenditure on higher education was $5,825, the smallest amount in 25 years. Of course, she neglects to mention another little tidbit in the report: In 2001, public expenditures per-student actually reached their highest point in 25 years, hitting $7,124!

What intervened between 2001 and 2005? Oh yes, a recession, which reduced tax receipts and forced states to cut spending, a process made more painful by the fact that many states spent wildly on higher education during the boom years. Even the most college-friendly states, apparently, couldn’t keep giving away taxpayer money that they didn’t have.

Finally, Ms. Kamenetz asserts that “what really makes me laugh is the argument that since the federal government is already spending a hell of a lot of money on this problem, that means the problem is not really a problem at all.” She then offers a deal: “let’s shake hands and agree that throwing more taxpayer dollars away is not going to get at the root causes of this mess.”

I agree that more taxpayer dollars won’t fix the college cost problem, but Ms. Kamenetz misses the main point: Not only won’t throwing more taxpayer dollars get at the problem’s root cause, it IS the root cause. As I wrote in my letter to USA Today, “clearly, aid is not shrinking. Indeed, that’s the problem: Like everyone else, colleges want as much money as they can get and will raise their prices if they think someone will pay them. All this aid ensures that someone will.”

It’s really fairly simple: As long as government is willing to increase student aid, colleges will inflate their prices to capture it. Moreover, as long as states continue to subsidize public postsecondary institutions with taxpayer dollars, we will see public colleges and universities waste massive amounts of money. Finally, as long as those subsidies continue, we will keep seeing tuition at public colleges and universities buffeted by the boom-and-bust cycle that governs most state budgets.

Frankly, there’s nothing laughable about any of the consequences of funneling more and more taxpayer dollars into the ivory tower, whether in the form of student aid or state subsidies. Hopefully, students and their advocates will soon come to realize that, end their constant demands for free higher education, and stop snickering about what they’re doing to taxpayers.

Just a Bit of Harmless Schadenfreude?

In today’s “L.A. Story” editorial (subscription barrier), the Wall Street Journal criticizes Democratic legislators and teachers’ union officials for blocking an educational power grab by Democratic L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Just a bit of harmless schadenfreude over Democratic infighting? Not really. In the process of painting Villaraigosa as victim and protagonist, the article perpetuates a dangerous myth: that mayoral or state takeovers of failing school districts are a worthwhile education reform.

The editorial points to districts like Boston and Chicago – widely regarded as successful takeovers – but ignores cases like Detroit and Paterson that were clear failures.

And how successful is Chicago, anyway? The “poster district” for takeovers, Chicago has not exactly become an educational Mecca over the past 11 years. A study of teacher quality released just last week found that “Chicago Public Schools fared particularly poorly…, with three-quarters of the campuses landing on the bottom of the pile.”

And how about the ultimate test? What share of entering Chicago high-school students are likely to go on to graduate from college by the time they’re 25? An April 2006 University of Chicago paper provides the answer: 6.5 percent. For African American boys, the figure is 2.5 percent.

What the children of Chicago, L.A., and every other American city and town need is not more central planning from the mayor’s office or the statehouse. What they need is the ability to easily kiss bad schools goodbye and transfer to better ones.