Topic: Education and Child Policy

Not a “Better Way” on Education

Yesterday, the House GOP released a report called A Better Way: Our Vision for a Confident America. Alas, at least in education, only if you think doing basically the same thing we’re doing right now is a “better way” could this report please you. And there is little to suggest what we’re doing now is working.

Start with pre-k education. While acknowledging the undeniable—“gold-standard” research commissioned by the feds themselves has shown federal Head Start has no discernable, lasting benefits—the report does not call for even decreasing Head Start spending, much less eliminating the program. No, it proclaims that early-childhood programs are very important and what Washington should do—again, with no talk about actually decreasing funding—is “streamline” duplicative programs and fund more research into “what works.” Because states, or local governments, or philanthropists, could never fund such research!

That’s not a better way. That is a way, maybe, to mute attacks that Republicans “don’t care” about little children or the poor. So maybe it’s a politically better way. But it isn’t a better way on policy.

At the elementary and secondary level, the report says nice things about choice, including the DC voucher program, which is all well and good. It also touts the Every Student Succeeds Act—the replacement for No Child Left Behind—before, frankly, we know what it is going to look like in practice. More and more, it seems the law may have given too much power to the U.S. Secretary of Education, which the report warns against in only the broadest terms.

A better way? We’ll see.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the report’s higher education discussion. Basically, the better way is—of course—to “streamline” stuff, including federal regulations, while failing to even mention the mountain of evidence that federal student aid—all $161 billion of it—fuels rampant price inflation and student debt; encourages massive noncompletion; finances credential inflation; and abets demand for on-campus water parks and other extreme amenities.

While we’re on the subject, the report falls all over itself to tout Pell Grants, but it would sure be refreshing if someone, in looking for a better way for everyone—taxpayers included—were to at least note how fundamentally unfair Pell Grants are. A huge benefit of completing college is to greatly increase one’s lifetime earnings—to use a term some people find distasteful, to profit—and what Pell says is you should be able to make that profit with other people’s money and no obligation to pay them back. How’s that fair?

There is one more omission from the report: any mention of the Constitution, and whether it gives the federal government authority to do any of these things. But if whether the programs work doesn’t matter, probably no one is going to care about a minor, abstract thing like the rule of law.

The “better way” on all these issues would be to be frank about the effects of federal policies, what the federal government is constitutionally permitted to do, and act accordingly. But that seems to be asking way too much.

Gates Foundation Cops – a Bit — To Dangerous Common Core Hubris

Yesterday, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, made an important admission in an open letter about the Common Core:

Deep and deliberate engagement is essential to success. Rigorous standards and high expectations are meaningless if teachers aren’t equipped to help students meet them.

Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards. We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators – particularly teachers – but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.

This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart. The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers.

Think about this. One of numerous objections to the Core has been that the Obama administration, at the behest of Core advocates including Gates, attempted to impose the standards on the entire country without the Core ever having been tested. Avoiding the sort of implementation obstacles that Desmond-Hellmann laments is exactly why testing – in a federalist system, typically done by a state or two voluntarily trying something – is so important. It is how you learn what works and what doesn’t, how to improve it, and it is how you keep the whole country from suffering when something fails. But no, Gates and other Core supporters could not wait for that – they had to impose the Core on everyone because, well, they just knew what America needed.

Or maybe they didn’t.

No one – not the Gates Foundation, not the Obama administration, no one – is omniscient, which is one reason it is so dangerous to impose one “solution” on everyone. There is a very good chance that the solution, even if it seems foolproof, will have lots of major, unanticipated problems.

The question now is, will Gates and other Core advocates learn from the ill effects of their hubris, and cease their efforts to impose a single solution on all people?

We can only hope.

Nevada Judge: Education Savings Accounts Are Constitutional

Dismissing a challenge from the ACLU, yesterday Las Vegas District Court Judge Eric Johnson ruled that Nevada’s education savings account (ESA) program is constitutional. However, the ESA program is still on hold due to a second lawsuit against the ESA program in which the judge issued an injunction against issuing the accounts. That case is currently pending before the Nevada Supreme Court, and it is possible that the two legal challenges will be merged.

The ACLU challenged the ESA law on two grounds, claiming that the ESA violated the Nevada Constitution’s “uniformity” clause and the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment. Siding with the state of Nevada and the Institute for Justice, the court rejected these claims. 

“Uniform” Does Not Mean “Exclusive”

Nevada’s state constitution requires that the legislature “shall provide for a uniform system of common schools.” These schools must “be established and maintained in each school district at least six months in every year” and it is forbidden for these schools to “allow instruction of a sectarian character therein.” In a separate clause, the state constitution enjoins the legislature to “encourage” education “by all suitable means.”

The ACLU argued the “suitable means” mentioned in Article XI, Section 1 are defined by uniformity clause in Section 2. The ACLU cited the infamous Bush v. Holmes decision in Florida, in which Florida’s state supreme court struck down the state’s voucher program by interpreting the state’s duty to create a “uniform” system of public schools to mean that the state had a duty to provide a system of schooling exclusively according to the means described in the state constitution, despite the state constitution empowering the legislation to create “other public education programs that the needs of the people may require.” (The Florida Education Association is now suing to halt the state’s tax-credit scholarship program on the same grounds.)

However,  the judge rejected this interpretation, holding instead that that in these two clauses, “the framers indicated that they intended to create two duties, a broad one to encourage education by ‘all suitable means,’ and a specific, but separate, one to create a uniform public school system.” The judge noted that the framers’ “use of two different sections to set out the Legislature’s responsibilities without reference in either section to the other plainly suggests the sections are separate and distinct.” By contrast, adopting the ACLU’s clever but strained interpretation would, according to the judge, “make section 1 superfluous, without any meaning or purpose.”

In other words, the Nevada constitution requires the state to establish a non-sectarian system of public schools, but it is also empowered to encourage education by other means that are not limited to non-sectarian schooling. 

The Evidence Is In: School Choice Works

There are a great many reasons to support educational choice: maximizing freedom, respecting pluralism, reducing social conflict, empowering the poor, and so on. One reason is simply this: it works.

This week, researchers Patrick J. Wolf, M. Danish Shakeel, and Kaitlin P. Anderson of the University of Arkansas released the results of their painstaking meta-analysis of the international, gold-standard research on school choice programs, which concluded that, on average, such programs have a statistically significant positive impact on student performance on reading and math tests. Moreover, the magnitude of the positive impact increased the longer students participated in the program.

As Wolf observed in a blog post explaining the findings, the “clarity of the results… contrasts with the fog of dispute that often surrounds discussions of the effectiveness of private school choice.”

That’s So Meta

One of the main advantages of a meta-analysis is that it can overcome the limitations of individual studies (e.g., small samples sizes) by pooling the results of numerous studies. This meta-analysis is especially important because it includes all random-assignment studies on school choice programs (the gold standard for social science research), while excluding studies that employed less rigorous methods. The analysis included 19 studies on 11 school choice programs (including government-funded voucher programs as well as privately funded scholarship programs) in Colombia, India, and the United States. Each study compared the performance of students who had applied for and randomly won a voucher to a “control group” of students who had applied for a voucher but randomly did not receive one. As Wolf explained, previous meta-analyses and research reviews omitted some gold-standard studies and/or included less rigorous research:

The most commonly cited school choice review, by economists Cecilia Rouse and Lisa Barrow, declares that it will focus on the evidence from existing experimental studies but then leaves out four such studies (three of which reported positive choice effects) and includes one study that was non-experimental (and found no significant effect of choice).  A more recent summary, by Epple, Romano, and Urquiola, selectively included only 48% of the empirical private school choice studies available in the research literature.  Greg Forster’s Win-Win report from 2013 is a welcome exception and gets the award for the school choice review closest to covering all of the studies that fit his inclusion criteria – 93.3%.

Survey Says: School Choice Improves Student Performance

The meta-analysis found that, on average, participating in a school choice program improves student test scores by about 0.27 standard deviations in reading and 0.15 standard deviations in math. In laymen’s terms, these are “highly statistically significant, educationally meaningful achievement gains of several months of additional learning from school choice.”

Bathroom Battles: Why We Need School Choice

North Carolina governor Pat McCrory (R) has just responded to the federal government’s threat to punish the state over its law prohibiting local governments from allowing transgendered people to choose their bathrooms: We’re suing!

Central to the nation’s bathroom war – which is one among sundry, seemingly endless culture wars – are the public schools. They are mentioned specifically in the Tar Heel State’s embattled law, and schools have been the sites of several lawsuits across the country over who gets to decide where students go to the bathroom or change their clothes. Of course, as Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map reveals in stark detail, just like the nation, our schools are constant battlegrounds in the culture wars, and our children are essentially innocent civilians with political, social, and cultural bombs going off all around them.

At issue in North Carolina are really two things directly applicable to education: level of public school control, and private rights.

The immediate issue is whether a state should be able to make its own laws without the federal government overruling them. The feds have a legitimate claim, under the Fourteenth Amendment, to do what they are doing – attempting to prevent discrimination by state or local governments – but there is also a good case to be made that there are competing rights at stake – privacy versus nondiscrimination – and perhaps neither should take clear-cut precedence. Moreover, even if it has the authority to intervene, it may be best if Washington allowed social evolution to occur gradually rather than imposing it as people deal with what is, it seems, a pretty new idea: a person should choose which restroom or locker room to use. Of course, North Carolina’s law applies one rule to all municipalities, also potentially curbing natural societal evolution.

New Study on K-12 Education

Neal McCluskey has updated an overview study on federal aid for K-12 education, which is posted at DownsizingGovernment.org. Neal reports that K-12 spending under the U.S. Department of Education and its predecessor agencies rose from $4.5 billion in 1965 to $40.2 billion in 2016, in constant 2016 dollars. He notes that the department funds more than 100 subsidy programs, and each comes with regulations extending federal control over local schools.

Over the years, the states have been happy to receive federal funds, but they have chafed under the mandates imposed by Washington. George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act provoked a backlash because of its costly rules for academic standards, student testing, and unrealistic proficiency demands. Neal argues that the new Ensuring Student Success Act of 2016 may have reduced some aspects of top-down control, but we won’t know for sure until all the regulations have been written.

Despite large increases in federal aid since the 1960s, public school performance has not improved much, if at all. Reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for 17-year-olds have been stagnant. In addition, America’s performance on international tests has remained mediocre, yet we spend more per-pupil on K-12 education than most countries.

Neal concludes that federal funding and mandates are not the way to create high-quality K-12 education. He notes that Canada has an advanced economy, yet it has no federal department of education. Public education in Canada is almost solely a concern of provincial and local governments. That decentralized approach has resulted in substantial experimentation and innovation, including school vouchers, charter schools, and competing public schools. International comparison tests show that Canadian kids generally outperform American kids in reading, mathematics, and science.

Neal is right that Congress should phase out federal funding for K-12 education and end all related regulations. Federal aid is ultimately funded by the taxpayers who live in the 50 states, and thus it provides no free lunch. Indeed, the states just get money back with strings attached, while losing billions of dollars from wasteful bureaucracy. There is no advantage in federal manipulation of K-12 education, and our school systems would be better off without it.

Neal’s essay.

AFT Message to Pearson: Hands off Our Monopoly!

Today the American Federation of Teachers – the country’s second largest teachers union – is joining “global allies” to protest outside of the shareholders’ meeting of Pearson PLC, a London-based company perhaps best known as a government contractor for standardized tests. What’s irking the AFT and friends? Pearson is heavily involved in government-imposed testing, as well as trying to help make private schooling more affordable in some of the world’s poorest places.

From the AFT’s press release:

The American Federation of Teachers, along with teachers unions and nongovernmental organizations throughout the world, will speak out during Pearson’s annual general meeting Friday, April 29, in London to call for a review of its business model that pushes high-stakes testing in the United States and privatized schools in the developing world.

How the press release sounds:

We oppose testing, and we oppose people having the ability to leave the government schools that impose it. Because, you know, we need to force taxpayers to fund these schools that impose these bad things. Because they also force taxpayers to pay for us.

I’m not a big fan of standardized testing, especially that is used to superficially deem students or schools “good” or “bad,” but I can certainly see the utility in testing. It can supply useful information. I can also understand why testing fans want assessments to have real ramifications for schools, even if I think they over-value test results. Learning should matter, right?

The key to balancing everyone’s myriad desires and judgements – especially when there is no conclusive evidence what works best for all, unique children – is to give individuals real choice and educators real autonomy to set up schools with different policies and focuses. Parents and educators who value standardized testing could work with each other. Parents and teachers who feel differently could do likewise. It’s called “freedom,” which is good in and of itself, but is also crucial for innovation, specialization, and real-but-flexible accountability.

Of course, freedom also makes it much harder to maintain a monopoly over employment terms and labor organization.

To see what this means in real life, I strongly suggest that the AFT and its allies – not to mention Pearson people and defenders of private schools everywhere – read James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree, which documents the existence of abundant private institutions serving many of the world’s poorest people, and doing so better than the public schools.

Why better than the public schools? Maybe because public schooling is so easily subjected to things like blanket standardized testing. Or labor monopolies. Or both.