Topic: Education and Child Policy

Blueprint for an Ivory Tower Disaster

Late Monday, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education – a group tasked with creating a “national strategy” for post-secondary schooling – released a preliminary draft of its findings and recommendations. Thankfully, it is just a draft, because almost everything it calls for – from marked increases in student aid, to more government-imposed “accountability”– would devastate American higher education.

American academia’s biggest problem is that thanks to government aid to both students and institutions it is financed largely by taxpayers rather than the students it is educating. This “third-party payer problem” has led to huge waste, as the draft report acknowledges:

In our view, affordability is directly affected by the failure of post-secondary institutions to take aggressive steps to improve institutional efficiency and productivity. That…can be traced to a system of third-party payments…that gives college and universities little incentive to control costs and find innovative ways to teach students. On the contrary, for many institutions the path to prestige involves spending more money, whether on costly laboratories or lavish student dorms, an academic arms race that often doesn’t serve the public interest.

Having apparently understood the third-party payer problem, you would think the commission would call for the obvious – eliminating government interference in higher education. You would be wrong. In fact, the report’s very first recommendation is for the nation (read: “government”) to “commit to an unprecedented effort to expand access to college by providing substantial increases in need-based aid…”

Of course, expanding student aid isn’t the report’s only recommendation. It also calls for new “Lifelong Learning Accounts” to be financed through tax incentives; federal enticements for states and higher education organizations to implement standardized testing schemes; a new “national student unit record tracking system” that would include data on almost every college student in the country; and a “national accreditation framework” that the federal government could use to impose uniformity on the ivory tower.

All of these big-government recommendations are supposed to help us compete in the global economy, which is ironic given the performances of our competitors’ very centralized systems of higher education. In the late 1990s, for instance, China’s economic planners offered huge incentives for young people to go to college. Today, roughly 60 percent of recent Chinese college graduates are struggling to find jobs. Or look at Europe: According to the Centre for European Reform, that continent’s colleges and universities “are failing to provide the intellectual and creative energy that is required to improve the continent’s poor economic performance.”

Clearly, to keep itself and the country competitive, the last thing American higher education needs is more government money or control. Unfortunately, the Secretary of Education’s Commission seems poised to recommend a lot more of both.

When a Billion Here and a Billion There DON’T Add up to Real Money

Warren Buffett is giving away $44 billion of his fortune, $30 billion of it to the Gates Foundation. Much of that money will go toward education. If it is used for more fiddling about with our existing school monopoly, it will have a negligible long term impact on American education. If it is used to help empower parents with an unfettered choice of public and independent schools, it will transform the lives of millions of children.

Soon we’ll find out how well Mr. Buffett’s investing acumen translates to the education philanthropy business.

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.