Topic: Education and Child Policy

In Higher Education, Status Quo Is Status Quo

Yesterday, a House subcommittee working on the higher education portion of the 2007 federal budget approved a bill that would add $100 to the maximum Pell grant, bringing the ceiling to $4,150, and save numerous programs President Bush had slated for elimination. According to Inside Higher Ed, committee Democrats were on the warpath from the start, demanding more support for the nation’s college students:

After a few minutes of civility, House Democrats went on the attack, questioning their Republican counterparts’ commitment to helping working-class Americans afford college education.

“Here’s the story as I see it: Families spend more to send their children to college; their costs are not frozen,” said Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.)… “We’re not going to effectively deal with this by keeping the status quo. And this bill is worse than that. People who are supposed to be the focus wind up getting squeezed.”

Obey was right—keeping the status quo is not going to ground higher education’s skyrocketing price. But the problem is that the federal government is putting too much money into student aid, not too little! The political cycle that drives tuition is actually easy to understand: Some people complain that tuition is too high and demand that politicians make college “affordable.” Politicians, to get votes, provide student aid. Then schools, suddenly able to get more money, raise tuition. But wait, that makes college “unaffordable” again! And so it goes…

The data bear out that increases in student aid have driven tuition up. Indeed, aid has actually been increasing faster than tuition over the last ten years. According to College Board figures, between the 1995-96 and 2005-06 academic years, the average, inflation-adjusted, enrollment-weighted, cost of tuition, fees, room, and board rose 31 percent at private, four-year institutions, and 41 percent at public, four-year schools. Meanwhile, inflation-adjusted aid per full-time equivalent student – most of which came from the federal government—rose 61 percent, from $6,261 to $10,119! Tuition ballooned because politicians made sure it could… and then some!

To truly change the status quo, Congress will have to do the exact opposite of what Rep. Obey wants. It will have to cut student aid, not increase it. Unfortunately, that’s not what gets votes.

Common Sense in California

In a referendum, California voters have a rejected a scheme (Proposition 82) supported by the state teachers’ union to impose a special 1.7 percent tax on high-income individuals to fund a government preschool program. A dangerous precedent could have been set here—that a government-dependent special interest could rabble-rouse a majority into the economic persecution of a minority for narrow gain. California voters soundly rejected the plan 59-41 in early returns.

Universal Preschool Goes Down in CA

Congratulations to California voters for keeping their preschools from becoming, well, like the rest of their schools.

Despite being the brainchild of famous director Rob Reiner, and having the support of many other Hollywood types, yesterday roughly 60 percent of California voters turned down Proposition 82, which would have provided “universal” (read: “government”) preschool for all state 4-year-olds.

In the past, such a touchy-feely proposal probably would have flown through the polls. But California voters might be wising up to the fact that “warm and fuzzy” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” From the San Jose Mercury News:

Many San Jose area voters took their skepticism about the measure to the polls.

“Prop. 82 sounded really good, but the more I looked at it, the more I realized it was subject to shenanigans,” said David Yomtov, a San Jose resident who said he voted against it.

To read all about the political shenanigans and wheeling-and-dealing behind Proposition 82, check out the work of Lisa Snell at the Reason Public Policy Institute, who started fighting the good fight against Reiner’s initiative almost the moment it was introduced.

“Underpaid Teachers” Richly Rewarded

Everybody knows that teachers are underpaid, right? Actually, we don’t know what teachers should be paid because individual teachers aren’t allowed to negotiate their pay with the people using their services–unions and politicians do the bargaining. Still, a few stats in a Washington Post article about a proposed contract for Washington D.C. public school teachers suggest that, if anything, many D.C. teachers are overpaid.

Using salary information in the article, we see that under their current contract D.C. teachers must work 7 hours a day for 192 days, and their starting salary is $39,000. Per-hour, that comes to $29.01, which beats the mean hourly pay for all D.C. residents by 59 cents.

Under the proposed contract, the starting salary would become $42,500 to work 7 ½ hours for 196 days, actually dropping the hourly rate by 10 cents. Importantly, though, the four extra days would be dedicated to “training,” and the extra half-hour to “planning,” so there really wouldn’t be much work added to the teachers’ load.

As impressive as these starting salary numbers are, though, the real eye-opener is at the top of the teachers’ salary ladder.  Currently, the highest rung on the ladder is $75,000, or a hefty $55.80 an hour. Adjusting that to 40 hours per week for 50 weeks a year (roughly what most people work) the highest paid teacher would get an annual salary of $111,600 – not bad! Under the new contract that would become even more generous, with the unadjusted salary rising to $87,000, the new hourly rate hitting $59.18, and the “normal” annual salary reaching $118,360!  And, of course, none of this includes teachers’ benefits, which are generally considered to be more generous than what’s available in the private sector.

Now, before anyone starts calling for my head, as happened the last time I wrote on this topic, let me say I don’t doubt that that many teachers work beyond their contracted hours. Of course, there’s also no question that lots of people work in excess of their time “on the clock.” With that in mind, the hours in the teachers’ contract are what teachers have agreed to, so it is the only fair basis on which to calculate their remuneration.

So let’s put this in perspective. As mentioned, a starting D.C. teacher makes more per hour than the average wage for all D.C. residents. Even more surprising, under the proposed contract a teacher making the top wage would get $12.16 more per-hour than the average D.C. citizen in a management position, including sales managers, marketing managers, and IT managers. Indeed, the only managerial group that would make more than teachers on an hourly basis would be the absolute head honchos – chief executives.

And here’s the kicker: What have D.C. teachers produced to deserve all this money? According to the Post article’s main point, a school system so decrepit that parents are leaving it in droves.

Calling All Parents

For months, a battle has raged in New York City over whether students should be allowed to have cell phones in public schools. In fact, in April the city ran something of a dragnet operation in schools looking for weapons and instead ended up confiscating 129 phones at one school alone.

Parents say their children need the phones to keep in touch with them on the kids’ way to or from school. The Bloomberg administration counters that having the phones in schools can be disruptive, that they are sometimes used for cheating on tests, and are even employed in gang activities. And now the dispute has reached the point where the City Council is getting involved, promising to pass legislation permitting children to carry phones.

All of this, of course, is ridiculous. Gangs operated in school for decades without cell phones, and for years NYC schools have successfully practiced a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that let kids carry phones as long as they didn’t go off in class or get used for nefarious purposes. But this is what happens when you force everyone to support a single, government-run, school system: People fight over everything because only one group’s values and opinions can ultimately become policy. The result: All kinds of stupid arguments, and schools that are constantly paralyzed by politics.

When Going Gets Tough, Public Schools Get Private

School choice opponents love to declare that “unlike private schools, public schools have to teach everyone.” Well it turns out that that’s not really true. As Dan Keating and V. Dion Haynes expose in today’s Washington Post, when kids’ disabilities get too tough, the D.C. Public Schools turn to private institutions, where disabled students can finally get the specialized attention they need.

This doesn’t just happen in Washington, though. According to the National Association of Private Special Education Centers, almost every state in the union has disabled children attending private institutions at public expense. Unfortunately, at least in the nation’s capital, the public schools tend to greatly understate what they are doing, either as a result of bureaucratic dysfunction, as Keating and Haynes suggest, or simply because no one likes getting caught in a lie.

Whatever the reason, for public schools the truth hurts.

What? High Schools Go All the Way to Grade 12?

The Department of Education released its annual “Condition of Education” report today, and as always it is filled with interesting information. There are, however, a couple of curious omissions. The report has a lengthy section discussing the international evidence on U.S. student and adult achievement, including the scores of fourth and eighth graders on the Third International Mathematics and Science Survey.

What’s missing are the scores of 12th graders. At the end of high school, American students are in last place in mathematics, and second to last place in science.

This sad reality caps a steady trend: The longer American kids spend in our public schools, the worse they do compared to their peers in other industrialized countries. At the fourth grade, we’re close to the average of developed nations, by the ninth grade we’re below that average, and by the 12th grade we’ve hit rock bottom.

The literacy scores of our young adults are also abysmal. On the recent international Adult Literacy and Lifeskills test, the only country we beat was Italy – the only country we managed to edge out in 12th grade science. Hurray.