Topic: Education and Child Policy

Friedrichs Decision Is a Blow Against Educational Excellence

Today, an evenly divided Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association to permit unions to continue charging nonmembers “agency fees” to cover collective-bargaining activities that the union supposedly engages in on their behalf. About half the states require agency fees from public-sector workers who choose not to join a union.

Not only do agency fees violate the First Amendment rights of workers by forcing them to financially support inherently political activities with which they may disagree (as my colleague Ilya Shapiro and Jayme Weber explained), but the unions often negotiate contracts that work against the best interests of the workers whose money they’re taking. For example, union-supported “last-in, first-out” rules and seniority pay (as opposed to merit pay) work against talented, young teachers. Moreover, a teacher might prefer higher pay to tenure protections, or greater flexibility over rigid scheduling rules meant to “protect” them from supposedly capricious principals.

South Dakota Enacts School Choice (for a Few Kids)

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a scholarship tax credit (STC) bill into law today, making the Mount Rushmore State the 29th state to enact a private school choice law, and the 21st to enact STCs. However, while an important step in the right direction, the number of students who will be able to receive tax-credit scholarships is vanishingly small.

South Dakota’s Partners in Education Tax Credit Program provides tax credits to insurance companies that contribute to nonprofit scholarship organizations that help low-income families pay tuition at the school of their choice. According to the Friedman Foundation, nearly four in ten South Dakota families meet the income eligibility requirements (150 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $67,000 for a family of four in 2015-16), but only a tiny fraction of eligible students will actually receive scholarships because the law only provides a total of $2 million in tax credits. With a scholarship cap equal to 82.5 percent of the state’s per-pupil expenditure at district schools, the maximum scholarship value in 2015-16 will be $4,023. That means that in a state with about 147,000 K-12 students–nearly 16,000 of whom are enrolled in private schools–only 500 students could receive scholarships worth $4,000.

That’s great for the one-third of one percent of South Dakota students who might get a scholarship, but it’s hardly revolutionary.

Neither Funny Nor Informative, This Core Strategy Should Die

When the Common Core debate was exploding three or four years ago, a primary pro-Core strategy seemed to be ignoring substantive objections to the Core and dismissing opponents as ignorant, maybe even loony. Over time, that strategy appeared to energize and expand opposition, and many Core supporters shelved it. But not, it seems, the Center for American Progress, which just posted to the website Funny or Die a video mocking Core-concerned parents.

You can watch the vid here, but basically two parents are sending their daughter to kindergarten and letting her know that she’ll have no need for books but will need a disguise, an ever-so-hilarious tin foil hat, and a ray gun, among other things, because her school uses Common Core and that means no to book-larnin’, yes to “Pod People” mind-reading. Thankfully, before the little girl sets off, her older sister, about to start her first year of college, walks by the little girl’s room and sets her goofball parents straight. “Common Core is just some standards my teachers use,” she exasperatedly explains. “So, you know, we can get into college, and get a job, and hopefully move out of our crazy parent’s house.”

Oh, is that it?

Not only insulting to Core opponents and dismissive of their concerns, the video is highly misleading. The Core is a specific set of standards – not just “some” standards – and states make teachers use them, quite likely in response to federal coercion. There is also no meaningful evidence that the Core enables students to get a job and leave the house of either their crazy or their sane parents. And a student entering college this year would have had little Core-aligned education – they would not have gone through it many years ago, as the video implies – because classroom implementation only began in the last two or three years.

Now, some opponents certainly ascribe things to the Core they should not. Sometimes these are politicians or education analysts, but often they are regular people with normal lives who cannot spend hours combing through laws and regulations to get all the right information. But CAP and many other Core defenders do, or at least should, know the whole truth, yet like this video they often put out misleading or woefully incomplete information, often with the stated goal of setting opponents straight. Indeed, just last week I responded to such “fact-checking” on the website of The Seventy Four. And what, by the way, did folks at The Seventy Four say about CAP’s video? They called it “hilarious” and reprinted a bunch of their flawed fact-check.

You can judge for yourself, of course, whether the video is hilarious. But there is little funny about dismissing the concerns of real parents and citizens who have had Common Core imposed on them, nor is it chuckle-inducing when, in the name of correcting others, Core fans keep distorting reality.

Getting the Common Core (and Federal) Facts Right

We’ve been fighting over the Common Core national curriculum standards for years now, and at this point the people who “fact check” ought to know the facts. Also, at this point, I should be doing many other things than laying out basic truths about the Core. Yet here I am, about to fact-check fact-checking by The Seventy Four, an education news and analysis site set up by former television journalist Campbell Brown. Thankfully, I am not alone in having to repeat this Sisyphean chore; AEI’s Rick Hess did the same thing addressing Washington Post fact-checkers yesterday.

Because I have done this so many times before – what follows are relatively quick, clarifications beneath the “facts” the “fact check” missed.

FACT: It was the states — more specifically the Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governors Association — that developed the standards. During the Obama administration, the Education Department has played no specific role in the implementation of those standards, and the classroom curriculum used to meet the broad goals set out in Common Core is created by districts and states, as it always has been. Further, states have made tweaks to the Common Core standards since their initial adoption and, in some cases, have decided to drop the standards entirely.

  • The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and National Governors Association (NGA) are not states. They are, essentially, professional associations of governors and state superintendents. And they are definitely not legislatures, which much more than governors represent “the people” of their states. So no, it was not “states” that developed the standards.
  • The CCSSO and NGA explicitly called for federal influence to move states onto common, internationally benchmarked standards – what the Core is supposed to be – writing in the 2008 report Benchmarking for Success that the role of the federal government is to offer “incentives” to get states to use common standards, including offering funding and regulatory relief. See page 7 of the report, and note that the same information was once on the Common Core website but has since been removed.
  • The Common Core was dropped into a federally dictated system under the No Child Left Behind Act that required accountability based on state standards and tests, so Washington did have a role in overseeing “implementation” of the standards. And since what is tested for accountability purposes is what is supposed to get taught, it is very deceptive to say, simply, curriculum “is created by districts and states.” The curricula states create is supposed to be heavily influenced by Core, and especially the math section pushes specific content. Indeed, the Core calls specifically for instructional “shifts.” Oh, and the federal government selected and funded two consortia of states to create national tests – the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) and the Smarter-Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) – which the Department of Education, to at least some extent, oversaw.

Regulating School Choice: The Debate Continues

Last week, the Cato Institute held a policy forum on school choice regulations. Two of our panelists, Dr. Patrick Wolf and Dr. Douglas Harris, were part of a team that authored one of the recent studies finding that Louisiana’s voucher program had a negative impact on participating students’ test scores. Why that was the case – especially given the nearly unanimously positive previous findings – was the main topic of our discussion. Wolf and I argued that there is reason to believe that the voucher program’s regulations might have played a role in causing the negative results, while Harris and Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute pointed to other factors. 

The debate continued after the forum, including a blog post in which Harris raises four “problems” with my arguments. I respond to his criticisms below.

The Infamous Education Productivity Chart

Problem #1: Trying to discredit traditional public schools by placing test score trends and expenditure changes on one graph. These graphs have been floating around for years. They purport to show that spending has increased much faster than expenditures [sic], but it’s obvious that these comparisons make no sense. The two things are on different scales. Bedrick tried to solve this problem by putting everything in percentage terms, but this only gives the appearance of a common scale, not the reality. You simply can’t talk about test scores in terms of percentage changes.

The more reasonable question is this: Have we gotten as much from this spending as we could have? This one we can actually answer and I think libertarians and I would probably agree: No, we could be doing much better than we are with current spending. But let’s be clear about what we can and cannot say with these data.

Harris offers a reasonable objection to the late, great Andrew Coulson’s infamous chart (shown below). Coulson already addressed critics of his chart at length, but Harris is correct that the test scores and expenditures do not really have a common scale. That said, the most important test of a visual representation of data is whether the story it tells is accurate. In this case, it is, as even Harris seems to agree. Adjusted for inflation, spending per pupil in public schools has nearly tripled in the last four decades while the performance of 17-year-olds on the NAEP has been flat. 

U.S. Education Spending and Productivity

Producing a similar chart with data from the scores of younger students on the NAEP would be misleading because the scale would mask their improvement. But for 17-year-olds, whose performance has been flat on the NAEP and the SAT, the story the chart tells is accurate.

Hubris Core

It may not seem necessary to say these two things, but here goes: (1) No person or group of people are omniscient, and (2) all people are different. Why do I state these realities? Because Common Core supporters sometimes seem to need reminders.

Writing on his New York Times blog, the New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey takes Donald Trump to task for saying that if elected he would eliminate the Common Core. Fair enough, though just as Washington strongly coerced adoption of the Core – a reality Carey deceptively sidesteps by saying states “voluntarily” adopted it – the feds could potentially attach money to dropping it. But that would be no more constitutional than the initial coercion, and the primary coercive mechanism – the Race to the Top – was basically a one-shot deal (though reinforced to an appreciable extent by No Child Left Behind waivers).

Carey is also reasonably suspicious of Trump’s suggestion that local control of education works best. Contrary to what Carey suggests, we don’t have good evidence that state or federal control is better than local – meaningful local control has been withering away for probably over a century, and some research does support it – but it is certainly the case that lots of districts have performed poorly and suffer from waste, paralysis, etc. But then we get this:

But states and localities, in a sense, don’t actually have the ability to set educational standards, even if they choose to. The world around us ultimately determines what students need to learn — the demands of highly competitive and increasingly global labor markets, the admissions requirements of colleges and universities, and the march of scientific progress.

The only choice local schools have is whether they will try to meet those expectations. The Common Core is simply a way of organizing and articulating standards that already exist, for the benefit of students, parents and teachers, so that schooling makes sense when children move between different grades, schools, districts and states.

Good Question: What to Do Before Major Change

“Dean Dad” Matt Reed has responded to my rebuttal to him Tuesday, and I appreciate his engaging me in discussion. His main point now: The student loan default problem is not mainly about big total debts, but smaller debts that are hard to pay off because the students dropped out before getting a degree.

I agree. Indeed, that was pretty much the point of my Wall Street Journal article that kicked off the exchange. As I wrote:

Many dropouts have loans, which are much harder to repay when one fails to finish, or gets a worthless degree. Borrowers on the academic margins, who often attend community colleges and for-profit schools, likely struggle the most to repay even though their debts tend to be relatively small. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that 34% of borrowers with debts between $1,000 and $5,000 defaulted, versus only 18% with debts in excess of $100,000, a level of debt associated with advanced degrees.

Where the confusion might lie is that I thought in his response to me Reed was suggesting that a major problem for anyone coming out of community college was that the minimum wage was too low and, connected to that, so were the wages of entry-level jobs. This was based on the following:

Why are former students having a hard time paying debt back? Mostly because entry-level jobs don’t pay very well. But McCluskey never addresses either the supply of entry-level jobs, or the minimum wage. 

Knowing that Reed did not mean to include graduates among “former students” makes his comments about low wages less alarming. Still, his solution – raise low wages instead of requiring evidence of college readiness – seems a broad, slow, and dubious way to deal with the debt problem. “Broad” because it calls for, essentially, overhauling a huge part of the economy as opposed to specifically reforming students loans; “slow” because doing that would take a pretty long time; and “dubious” because there is a lot of evidence that raising the minimum wage has substantial negative effects.

In addition to raising the minimum wage, Reed calls for “free (or much less expensive) community college.”

Free community college would probably solve the problem of community college noncompleters leaving with debt, depending on how one accounted for living expenses, but it comes with its own set of troubles. The first is that we would likely still have lots of people not finishing, only the costs would be borne more by taxpayers and less by students. The second is that, unless “free” were somehow focused on the poor, you would have taxpayers subsidizing well-to-do people. Recent data show about 39 percent of dependent undergraduate students at community colleges, and about 54 percent of independent students, are from the upper half of the income distribution.  About 16 and 28 percent are from the highest income quartile. Then there is the question of how to pay for this, especially if making it free leads to even more people enrolling. And will community colleges be able to handle all of the new students, or will they have to ration spots? What will encourage students to complete their studies as quickly as possible?