Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.

Private Schools Will Always Bail Out Public Schools

Picking up on a Washington Post article I blogged about a couple of weeks ago, in today’s New York Times columnist Brent Staples calls for public schools to get on the ball and provide a decent education for disabled kids. He also notes, though, that even if the public schools do markedly improve, “some severely disabled children will always need to be educated outside the public system.”

To many people, such a statement is practically heresy: Not only doesn’t Staples buy the rubbish dispensed by public schooling apologists that government schools must take all comers, he writes that public institutions will always need a private safety net to catch the most needy children.

This kind of reality-based heresy could easily get Mr. Staples rhetorically stoned by public school zealots. It’s also the kind of heresy that needs to be repeated over, and over, and over again.

Public Education: Social Napalm

Perhaps the most pernicious myth about American public education is that it is the “foundation of our democracy,” the great unifying force that has taken millions of diverse peoples and shaped them into a cohesive, happy whole.

It’s a fantasy. The ugly truth is that our one-size-fits-all public school system, for which everyone must pay but only the most politically powerful can control, has been forcing American communities into ruinous social conflict for almost two centuries. The latest casualty is Miami, where efforts to ban school library books that portray post-communist revolution Cuba in a flattering light have set the community ablaze. From the Miami Herald:

The emotional and political storm surrounding the debate became impossible to ignore in a community so deeply steeped in Cuban culture. It bared the exile community’s considerable political heft as well as persistent suspicion that other groups remain ignorant of – or even hostile to – the deep sensitivity toward Cuba’s image and struggles….

Board member Robert Ingram voted for the ban, but only to invite the ACLU’s lawsuit so the issue could be resolved by the courts, he said. In an impassioned speech, he said threats from the exile community left him thinking board members “might find a bomb under their automobiles” if they voted to keep the book.

“There’s a passion of hate,” Ingram said. “I can’t vote my conscience without feeling threatened – that should never happen in this community any more.”

Tragically, all across the country conflicts like Miami’s occur constantly. Battles over Intelligent Design, school budgets, dress codes, student speech rights, race, and sex education all are symptoms of the same problem: Monolithic systems of public education will only reflect the values of those people with enough political strength to impose their will. This results in either nonstop political warfare or subjugation of the politically weak, neither of which is the foundation of any kind of desirable society. Only freedom, which in education means school choice, can form such a foundation.

Corey’s Christo-Sized Coat-Tails

Newark Mayor-elect Corey Booker has political coat-tails so long they could be a Christo art installation.

Booker won in a landslide earlier this spring on a platform of clean government and school choice, and now the slate of municipal council members he has endorsed have won a clean sweep in yesterday’s runoff elections.

Booker and his fellow revolutionaries will face stiff opposition from the teachers’ unions and state legislators in their efforts to give Newark residents unfettered school choice, but they unquestionably have the city’s people behind them.

School Choice Prospects Improve in SC

Becky Martin, an incumbent South Carolina state representative, won’t be returning to the legislature next session. She was defeated in yesterday’s primary race largely due to opposition from supporters of market-based education reform. Martin was one of a dozen or so Republicans who voted against an education tax credit program championed by Governor Mark Sanford.

Another Republican incumbent who voted against the school choice tax credit bill, Ken Clark, received only 34 percent of the vote. He’ll face a run-off against Kit Spires who received 44 percent.

Most interestingly, Karen Floyd, a pro-school-choice candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction (!!!), appears to have won an outright majority of the vote in a primary race against four other candidates. With 98.2 percent of the vote counted, she leads with 50.49 percent.

It’s too early to declare victory, but things are certainly looking up for kids in the Palmetto state.

For more SC election results, click here.

Tipping Credulity on Student Aid

Yesterday, USA Today ran a front page article on the arrival of six-figure student debt, highlighting especially the $116,000 in debt accumulated by a Rutgers University master’s student.

Now, the article didn’t say whether the scholar in question was an in-state student or had been a Rutgers undergraduate, but if both were applicable his would be a Guinness-worthy borrowing feat, especially since the article said that Rutgers paid the young man’s tuition for his final year of grad school.

Let’s go to the numbers: In the 2005-06 academic year, the cost of tuition, fees, room and board for an in-state undergraduate at Rutgers was $17,800. If the student had paid that for four years—which he obviously didn’t since he must have graduated before 2005-06—his entire undergraduate education would only have cost $71,200. As a graduate student, if we assume he lived in university housing and had the biggest possible meal plan, he would have paid about $20,000 a year. The grand total for both his undergraduate and graduate education, then, would have come to approximately $111,200—$4,800 less than his total accumulated debt! Oh yeah, and Rutgers paid the young man’s tuition in his final year—about $10,000—so he actually owes $14,800 more than the entire cost of his education. Amazing!

Asserting that students have no option but to go into six-figure hock to attend college is, of course, ridiculous. But, predictably, that hasn’t stopped student advocates and interest groups from celebrating USA Today’s story. Indeed, Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt, even dubbed the article a “tipping point” in the battle to convince America that its students are impoverished and need more taxpayer-funded student aid. Sadly, when it comes to her assessment of the article, Kamenetz might be right.