Education Journalism. Another Epic Failure

This weekend, the Washington Post took education secretary Arne Duncan to task for claiming that DC’s public school system has ”had more money than God for a long time.” Post education reporter Bill Turque notes a January 2009 study showing “that D.C., ranked against the 50 states, is 13th in per-pupil expenditures ($11,193).” The study he cites is the January 2009 edition of Education Week’s Quality Counts publication, which used “Department of Education data from 2005-06 (the latest year available).”

Is this finally an example of the investigative journalism I recently noted has been sorely lacking in education? Not exactly. The Post and Ed Week are reporting a figure that is less that half of what DC is actually spending on k-12 education this year.

Their first error is to imagine that the Dept. of Ed.’s 3-year-old data are the most recent available. As a few seconds of Googling demonstrate, the current year education budgets for the District are available on the website of DC’s Chief Financial Officer: here, here, and here.

What difference do 3 years make? Consider that total spending on education in DC has gone up in real terms over that period while enrollment has fallen from about 59,000 to fewer than 49,000 students. That alone has led to a dramatic rise in per pupil spending.

Next consider that Ed Week appears to have ignored capital spending (e.g., on building renovation and construction) from its calculations. So its “per pupil expenditures” are not the total per pupil figures that readers would naturally assume, they only cover part of the district’s spending (the part normally referred to as “current operating expenditures”). What difference does that make? Nearly $5,000 worth.

As I noted last year, “current operating expenditures” for DC were $13,466 in 2005-06 (Ed Week’s figure is lower because they applied a regional cost-of-living adjustment). DC’s total per pupil spending in that same year was $18,098. [Note that we have to infer that Ed Week excluded capital spending based on the numbers they report, because their table inexplicably fails to say what figures it is reporting.]

And finally, reporting old figures without adjusting for inflation understates how much was actually spent unless readers know to perform the inflation adjustment themselves.

So what happens when you add up this year’s total spending on k-12 education in DC and divide by this year’s actual enrollment? You end up with the real per pupil spending figure of $26,555.

So, secretary Duncan: you were right all along.

Any journalist or public official wishing an explanation of the current-year total per pupil spending figure cited above for Washington, DC  is welcome to contact me at acoulson(at) cato.org

The Easy Solution to Rising Health Care Costs

It turns out that solving the health care crisis is easy.  There’s never been any reason for the lengthy, divisive, and impassioned debate.  Explains the New York Times:

“Really controlling costs requires just stopping spending,” said Stuart H. Altman, a professor of health policy at Brandeis University.

Gees, it’s no problem then.  Why didn’t I think of that?

Deadly Canadian Health Care

Opponents of nationalize health care rightly warn about the negative impact of politicizing medical care, but it’s never easy to prove that someone who otherwise would have lived died as a result.  Yet Canadians are asking whether that may be the case with actress Natasha Richardson.  Reports the News & Observer (hat tip to Matthew Vadum at the American Spectator blog):

Questions are arising over whether a medical helicopter might have been able to save actress Natasha Richardson.

The province of Quebec lacks a medical helicopter system, common in the United States and other parts of Canada, to airlift stricken patients to major trauma centers. Montreal’s top head trauma doctor said Friday that may have played a role in Richardson’s death.

Richardson, 45, died Wednesday at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York after falling Monday on a ski slope at the Mont Tremblant resort in Quebec.

“It’s impossible for me to comment specifically about her case, but what I could say is … driving to Mont Tremblant from the city [Montreal] is a 2 1/2-hour trip, and the closest trauma center is in the city. Our system isn’t set up for traumas and doesn’t match what’s available in other Canadian cities, let alone in the States,” said Tarek Razek, director of trauma services for the McGill University Health Centre, which represents six of Montreal’s hospitals.

While Richardson’s initial refusal of medical treatment cost her two hours, she also had to be driven to two hospitals. She didn’t arrive at a specialized hospital in Montreal until about four hours after the second 911 call from her hotel room at the resort, according to a timeline published by Canada’s The Globe and Mail newspaper.

Because of the pervasiveness of both third party payment and government regulation, the American medical system spends more than it should.  But it remains far more oriented towards meeting patient needs than does government-dominated health care.  As policymakers debate various “reform” measures, they should keep Natasha Richardson’s tragic fate in mind.

DHS Officials Skirt Open Meeting Laws to Promote REAL ID

There’s not much chance that U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials went to Annapolis to argue against having Maryland implement the national ID law. Maryland’s Gazette reports:

Federal homeland security officials skirted open meetings laws at a briefing last week on the state’s efforts to comply with the federal Real ID Act, unsettling several lawmakers in an era of heightened government transparency.

A meeting with the Maryland House Judiciary Committee members and other lawmakers was carefully regulated to avoid reaching a quorum so open meeting rules could be avoided.

Something is funny in the state of Maryland, and something is funny at the DHS, to insist on holding closed meetings about REAL ID during what President Obama promised would be the most open and transparent administration in history.

Napolitano revealed early this month that she has been collaborating with the National Governors Association on REAL ID. Just what they plan also remains a secret.

As governor of Arizona, she signed legislation to resist REAL ID, but politicians that come to Washington have a tremendous capacity to go native and start working to build federal power. There’s even precedent for them working with the NGA to do it.

The Problem of Guantanamo

The Constitution obviously does not leave Americans helpless in fighting against those who wish them ill.  But it also sets standards of conduct that should not – indeed, cannot – be carelessly tossed aside.

The prison at Guantanamo Bay has become such an international symbol of the U.S. abandoning its principles because it reflects an anti-terrorism policy gone badly awry.  First, the Bush administration was both callous and careless in imprisoning people, even paying unreliable tribal allies for captives.  Second, the U.S. government created no effective and objective truth-determining process to assess guilt.  Third, Washington employed torture, violating both domestic and international law.

No doubt dangerous terrorists have been incarcerated at Gitmo.  But so too have many innocent people.  Indeed, the claims of former State Department Chief of Staff Larry Wilkerson are particularly sobering:

Lawrence B. Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, admitted today that of the approximately 800 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay since the controversial detention center opened, only “two dozen or so” were actually terrorists. Wilkerson told the Associated Press today that “there are still innocent people there,” and that “some have been there six or seven years.”

Wilkerson made other comments earlier in the week in an internet posting entitled “Some Truths About Guantanamo Bay.” In that posting he said that “several in the US leadership became aware of the lack of proper vetting very early on and thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released.”

Wilkerson also claimed that then-Secretary Powell and Richard Armitage were pressuring for the repatriation of as many detainees as possible, and that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney were unphased by the fact that “among the detainees was a 13 year old boy and a man over 90,” standing in opposition to returning detainees.

Even if Wilkerson exaggerates–and he has been a credible witness so far–he points to the price America has paid for failing to live up to its principles.  The U.S. has locked up many who were neither terrorists nor otherwise dangerous.  Doing so undoubtedly has helped turn some people in and out of Gitmo towards violence against America.  And mistreating the innocent has badly sullied America’s reputation as a shining city upon a hill.

Confronting terrorism will never be easy.  But violating America’s principles is no way to defend the America in which we all claim to believe.

Miss Manners’s Advice for President Obama

A reader writes to Miss Manners to complain that often she can’t find a seat at a bookstore coffee shop, even though she’s a paying customer and some of the people seated seem not to be buying anything. She suggests that it is obvious that this is not the way to manage a coffee shop in a bookstore and asks Miss Manners how she can politely get the seat she wants. Miss Manners responds:

If you want to manage a coffee shop, Miss Manners suggests you first talk to those who do.

She goes on to explain that bookstores may “do better selling books by being a neighborhood center than they would by checking to see that the tables are occupied only by people who are eating and drinking.” But in any case, the bookstore managers are likely to have a better sense of this than customers who have not invested in the business.

That’s good advice for the Obama administration: If you want to manage a bank, an insurance company, an automobile manufacturer, or any other company, you might try talking to people with expertise. Better yet, you might even let those with skin in the game manage their own companies. If they make mistakes and the government doesn’t bail them out, bad managers will soon enough be weeded out.

Week in Review: Bailout Bonuses, Marijuana and Eminent Domain Abuse

House Approves 90 Percent ‘Bonus Tax’

Sparked by outrage over the bonus checks paid out to AIG executives, the House approved a measure Thursday that would impose a 90 percent tax on employee bonuses for companies that receive more than $5 billion in federal bailout funds.

Chris Edwards, Cato’s director of tax policy studies, says the outrage over AIG is misplaced:

While Congress has been busy with this particular inquisition, the Federal Reserve is moving ahead with a new plan to shower the economy with a massive $1.2 trillion cash infusion — an amount 7,200 times greater than the $165 million of AIG retention bonuses.

So members of Congress should be grabbing their pitchforks and heading down to the Fed building, not lynching AIG financial managers, most of whom were not the ones behind the company’s failures.

Cato executive vice president David Boaz says this type of selective taxation is a form of tyranny:

The rule of law requires that like people be treated alike and that people know what the law is so that they can plan their lives in accord with the law. In this case, a law is being passed to impose taxes on a particular, politically unpopular group. That is a tyrannical abuse of Congress’s powers.

On a related note,  Cato senior fellow Richard W. Rahn defended the use of tax havens in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, saying the practice will only become more prevalent as taxes increase in the United States:

U.S. companies are being forced to move elsewhere to remain internationally competitive because we have one of the world’s highest corporate tax rates. And many economists, including Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas, have argued that the single best thing we can do to improve economic performance and job creation is to eliminate multiple taxes on capital gains, interest and dividends. Income is already taxed once, before it is invested, whether here or abroad; taxing it a second time as a capital gain only discourages investment and growth.

Obama to Stop Raids on State Marijuana Distributors

Attorney General Eric Holder announced this week that the president would end federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries that were common under the Bush administration.

It’s about time, says Tim Lynch, director of Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice:

The Bush administration’s scorched-earth approach to the enforcement of federal marijuana laws was a grotesque misallocation of law enforcement resources. The U.S. government has a limited number of law enforcement personnel, and when a unit is assigned to conduct surveillance on a California hospice, that unit is necessarily neglecting leads in other cases that possibly involve more violent criminal elements.

The Cato Institute hosted a forum Tuesday in which panelists debated the politics and science of medical marijuana. In a Cato daily podcast, Dr. Donald Abrams explains the promise of marijuana as medicine.

Cato Links

• A new video tells the troubling story of Susette Kelo, whose legal battle with the city of New London, Conn., brought about one of the most controversial Supreme Court rulings in many years. The court ruled that Kelo’s home and the homes of her neighbors could be taken by the government and given over to a private developer based on the mere prospect that the new use for her property could generate more tax revenue or jobs. As it happens, the space where Kelo’s house and others once stood is still an empty dustbowl generating zero economic impact for the town.

• Daniel J. Ikenson, associate director of Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies, explains why the recent news about increasing protectionism will be short-lived.

• Writing in the Huffington Post, Cato foreign plicy analyst Malou Innocent says Americans should ignore Dick Cheney’s recent attempt to burnish the Bush administration’s tarnished legacy.

• Reserve your spot at Cato University 2009: “Economic Crisis, War, and the Rise of the State.”