The Truth Isn’t out There

Because I work on federal education policy, I receive a steady stream of emails from the White House Office of Public Liaison (read: Office of Spin) suggesting that the No Child Left Behind Act is saving American education. Today, only moments after I’d read the story on the Washington Post’s website, the OPL folks sent me an “in case you missed it” copy of a Post report suggesting that thanks to NCLB, achievement scores for low-income kids in some DC suburbs have increased:

Since enactment of the No Child Left Behind law, students from poor families in the Washington area have made major gains on reading and math tests and are starting to catch up with those from middle-class and affluent backgrounds….The achievement gap between economic groups, long a major frustration for educators, has narrowed in the region’s suburban schools since President Bush signed the law in 2002, according to Maryland and Virginia test data.

It’s entirely possible, I should make clear, that achievement gaps on Virginia and Maryland tests have closed. The problem is, it’s not possible to attribute such changes to NCLB, because so many other factors than the law—changing demographics, state reforms, etc.—could have been at work. And that’s not the biggest problem with dubbing NCLB a savior. The biggest problem is that states have been changing their own tested populations, test content, cut scores, and other important testing variables throughout the NCLB era, rendering truly comparable scores a seriously threatened species.

For well-documented evidence of this, check out the Center on Education Policy’s compilation of state-testing policies and outcomes. CEP has files for every state, and to get through them all requires a fair amount of downloading and scrolling. Examining each state’s “major changes in testing system,” however, will reward the effort, as will taking in the trends of comparable results from year to year. Bottom line: You can tell almost nothing about outcomes under NCLB because so many state testing systems have been significantly altered—and re-altered, and altered again—during the NCLB era.

That said, there is a bit of good news for Maryland: The state has comparable data generally going back to 2004—a pretty abbreviated trend line, but not the shortest of any state—and the percentage of kids overall hitting “proficiency” seems to be going up. That might still reflect test questions getting easier, better test “gaming” by teachers, and other less-obvious changes than new cut scores or completely new tests, but at least it’s a few years of general comparability and improvement.

For Virginia, there is no NCLB Santa Clause: The state has only two years of comparable data, and while the percentage of kids hitting proficiency rose between 2006 and 2007, it’s not nearly enough info to identify any kind of a trend.

So here’s the overall NCLB story based on what can reliably be reported: When it comes to the law’s effectiveness, it seems the truth, no matter what is proclaimed, isn’t really out there.

Credit Crunch-ing State & Local Government Appetites

The New York Times shines light on the unsurprising trouble state and local governments are having issuing new debt:

“Analysts said the dysfunction in the municipal bond markets appeared to signal the end of an era of relatively cheap money for governments and, probably, the start of an era of tough choices for communities.”

It’s about time. As the following chart shows, state and local debt outstanding has almost doubled since 2000:

Says the Times article:

Municipalities will probably be able to function, but may not expand services, said John V. Miller, chief investment officer at Nuveen Asset Management, a municipal bond investment firm. “For some, the level of service they provide will decline.”  Some governments, already straining to balance their budgets, will have to cut payrolls, he said, and others may decide to raise taxes.

Raise taxes?

Bureau of Economic Analysis figures show that total combined state and local expenditures have risen an average of 5.8% a year since 2000 – an overall increase of almost 50%.  Taxpayers shouldn’t get stuck with the hangover that inevitably results from politicians binge-spending while the party was good.

If Anyone Blames the Market, I Swear I’ll…

Right now, it’s very popular with politicians to blame the free market for our mortgage-driven economic woes. It’s also, as with most things popular among politicians, utter nonsense: Fannie and Freddie are Dr. Washington’s monsters, and DC has practically forced lenders to float loans to high-risk borrowers.

Of course, it’s not just in mortgages that the feds have been superheating the market, only to proclaim that they’re saving it every time they do something that will just make matters worse. They’ve been doing that in higher education for decades, delivering or guaranteeing loans targeted at high-risk borrowers, and the current credit “crisis” has done nothing to curb their enthusiasm. Heck, it’s emboldened them to do more.

You might recall something I wrote back in April about the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act, a fast-moving piece of legislation intended to shield any college student from the possibility that he or she might not be able to get a loan. Among other things, the act increased limits on several federal loans so that students could borrow even more, and loosened the eligibility guidelines for PLUS loans so that parents in significant mortgage arrears could still borrow college cash. It easily passed Congress, pushing significantly more money at ever-greater risks – and Congress has just extended it to 2010.

And people wonder why lenders make loans to obvious credit risks, and college costs keep on skyrocketing?

Unfortunately, some people in Washington never learn, or worse, know full well that pumping ever more money to big risks is a huge, dangerous distortion, and just don’t care. Case in point, this quote from Michael Dannenberg, senior fellow with the New America Foundation, lauding Senator Obama in a new AP article for proposing a new tax credit program—which includes a make-work “community service” payback piece—on top of all the other federal aid programs:

Michael Dannenberg, senior fellow with the New America Foundation and a former adviser to Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., says Obama’s proposals take the problem of college affordability more seriously than McCain’s. And he calls the tax credit a significant innovation.
“McCain’s message when it comes to increased tuition is, ‘You’re on your own,’” said Dannenberg, who has not worked for Obama’s campaign. “Obama’s message to families is, ‘We’ll give you more financial aid to help you with college costs, but your kids are going to have to help others.’”

Notice what taking a problem “seriously” means? Offering even more bankrupting government largesse! And who cares about the ultimate bill…until, that is, the reality of “no free lunch” ultimately forces it to come due.

In light of this, nobody, and I mean NOBODY, in Washington had better blame “market forces” for huge cost problems, inefficiencies, or just plain wasted money in higher education. Federal politicians, with their constant bribery of voters and special interests, have made our colossal financial messes, and they haven’t got a leg to stand on acting like they are the solution and freedom is the problem.

I’m from the Government and I’m Here to Stop Hurting You

The Washington Post discusses the great new options for street food in downtown Washington–not just hot dogs but “po’ boys, pulled pork, gumbo, shawarma” and more. Sure sounds like the much-criticized D.C. government is really helping this time: The jump headline says, “With City’s Help, Vendors Break the Mold.” Author Tim Carman writes, “Both [new food] vendors still needed public assistance.” And “the city [has] been working with vendors to give hungry Washingtonians a taste of what they want.” All praise the D.C. government, font of good food.

But of course the city hasn’t produced the food. It hasn’t subsidized the vendors. It hasn’t put vendors together with investors. All it has done is to lift, in one part of the city, “regulations that have choked the life out of D.C.’s street food for decades.” There are licensing rules (and a moratorium on issuing any new licenses), prohibitions on hiring employees, cart size rules, regulations on where you can park a cart at night, and so on. So the “public assistance” the vendors received was to be exempted from some of the regulations, inside a 32-block demonstration zone.

It reminds me of the wisdom of Henry David Thoreau: “This government never furthered any enterprise but by the alacrity with which it got out of the way.”

George Will Is on a Roll

Another great column from George Will today, on the House’s “vote against rashness.” With a conservative’s sense of history, he traces some of the policy choices that brought us to today’s crisis:

Suppose that in 1979 the government had not engineered the first bailout of Chrysler (it, Ford and GM are about to get $25 billion in subsidized loans). Might there have been a more sober approach to risk throughout corporate America?

Suppose there had never been implicit government backing of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Better yet, suppose those two had never existed – there was homeownership before them, just not at a level that the government thought proper. Absent Fannie and Freddie – absent government manipulation of the housing market – would there have developed the excessive diversion of capital into the housing stock?

But really, if you haven’t been reading George Will this year–on the problems with both Obama and McCain, on the automobile bailout, on local government fiscal crises–go here. And to read what he says about his new book, go here (pdf)