Spelling Disaster for Higher Ed

In a speech at the National Press Club yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings made the prophecy come true.

In November – not long after Spellings announced the creation of her Commission on the Future of Higher Education – I wrote the following in a National Review Online op-ed:

In September, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced the formation of a commission tasked with designing a “national strategy for higher education” to prepare us for the 21st century.

The commission is composed entirely of people in academia, government or big business, all of whom benefit when taxpayer money is shoveled into higher education. Its recommendations are therefore almost a foregone conclusion: The federal government should spend more on student aid supposedly to ensure, as Spellings demands, that we have a workforce for the 21st century, and on “basic” research that businesses want done, but on which they would rather not risk their own money.

Of course, with a unified national strategy two more things will come: federal control of academia and an end to the competition for students that has driven innovation in American higher education and made it the envy of the world.

In her speech yesterday, Spellings confirmed many of my fears from November, calling for more federal student aid, new federal databases populated with information on every student and college in America, and a federally funded program that would bribe schools into making all their students take standardized tests in order, supposedly, to measure their “learning outcomes.” And Spellings opened the door to do even more than that, announcing that she will be holding a “summit” this spring to discuss each and every proposal in the commission’s final report, which includes demands for substantially increased federal research spending, and a blanket charge to create a national “strategy for lifelong learning.”

What Spellings glossed over – as did the commission’s report – was the cause of higher education’s most basic problem, skyrocketing prices. Why? Probably because the federal government is to blame. Federal financial aid enables students to demand ever-more expensive college goodies, fueling, rather than grounding, the college cost rocket. Indeed, as George Leef of the John William Pope Center explains in a new study, it is abundant government aid, as well as politicians’ incessant and specious declarations that almost everyone needs to go to college, that drive almost all of higher education’s major problems. In addition to pushing up prices, government aid and political rhetoric have convinced woefully unprepared students to pursue schooling they can’t handle, fueled rampant “credentialism,” and rendered actual learning in college largely irrelevant.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of Spellings’ efforts to control higher education, however, is that she openly touts federal work in elementary and secondary education as the model for what needs to be done in higher ed.

Maybe I’d better repeat that: She openly touts federal work in elementary and secondary education as the model for what needs to be done in higher education.

Apparently, our stagnant, embarrassing, public K-12 schools, which the federal No Child Left Behind Act has only made worse by encouraging states to lower academic standards and hide failures, have a lot to teach our colleges and universities, which are, if nothing else, hands down the most popular destinations in the world for international students.

Hopefully, it’s not too late for colleges and universities to realize what they’re heading for, and fight federal assaults tooth and nail. Today, we will begin to get an idea whether this will happen, both as reactions to Spellings’ plans hit the media, and at a special forum on overhauling the ivory tower to be held right here at Cato.

The prophecy about Spellings’ proposals has come true, but there’s still hope that those proposals won’t become reality.

Bush, McCain, and Prisoner Policy

Today’s Washington Post has an editorial entitled “Rush to Error.” The editorial says that Congress should not be pushed into approving the Bush-McCain accord with respect to the handling of prisoners. The Post is right.

The legal issues can get pretty complicated, but it may be useful to take a few steps back from the nitty-gritty to gain perspective. Last June, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in a case called Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. The Court ruled that President Bush’s plan for trials before military tribunals was unlawful and that Common Article III of the Geneva Convention applied to all prisoners in U.S. custody. Thus, as a result of Hamdan, this is the status quo:

1. There will be no trials before special military tribunals.

2. The CIA “program” of secret arrests, secret detentions, and secret interrogation tactics is shut down.

3. There is a chance that there might be a war crimes prosecution someday because the War Crimes Act made it a crime to violate Common Article III of the Geneva Convention.

The Bush administration abhors the status quo and that is why it has been seeking legislation from the Congress in recent weeks. The proposed legislation will do at least three things:

1. It will revive a policy of trying persons before special military tribunals. (The Supreme Court ruling simply said that Bush could not set up the courts on his own authority).

2. It will, in effect, revive the CIA “program” of “alternative interrogation procedures.”

3. It will immunize past actions of government agents from criminal prosecution.

Given all this, the best thing that can happen is for Congress to simply adjourn.

Federal Voucher Advocates Ignore the Risks

Conservative school choice advocates seem almost unanimous in their desire for federal vouchers. Writing in National Review Online, the Fordham Foundation’s Michael Petrilli supports such a program on the grounds that it would save urban Catholic schools from insolvency. I couldn’t agree more that Catholic schools have been an invaluable educational lifeline for many families, and are eminently worth saving. But I am mystified by the right’s apparent lack of concern about the risks of federal school choice programs.

And I’m not just talking about the 10th Amendment’s proscription against federal education policymaking, which Bill Bennett and Rod Paige dismissed last week as “a naïve commitment to states’ rights.” I’m talking primarily about the sobering examples of national voucher programs in countries like the Netherlands and Sweden.

While these programs are superior, in many respects, to education monopolies such as our own, they suggest that federal voucher programs bring with them stifling federal regulation. In Sweden, the regulation was there from the start, while in the Netherlands it built up inexorably over time. There are no examples anywhere in the world of federal governments extending funding to private schools without also extending federal control – whether immediately or gradually. The end result is that independent schools lose their independence, and any hope for the rise of a truly competitive education industry is lost.

Why are conservatives ignoring this risk? Perhaps they no longer see federal regulatory encroachment as a risk at all. Many have specifically advocated increased federal intervention in the content of instruction (see this debate on federal standards between Michael Petrilli and Cato’s own Neal McCluskey, or Neal’s current piece in NRO).

There are alternatives. State level school choice policies are preferable to federal ones, and funding universal school choice with private dollars (through non-refundable tax credits) is preferable to doing it with government dollars. Short version of this argument here. Long version here.

It’s Getting Better All the Time (contd.)

The Washington Post has a 12-inch story on Tuesday with this headline:

Freshman from Arlington

Comes Down With Mumps 

Is that news? When I was a kid back in the benighted 60s, everyone got mumps. Why is it news today? Because now we have vaccines, and kids don’t get mumps any more. So it’s actually news when somebody gets “the mumps, a highly contagious viral disease.” Sounds bad when you put it that like that, but it seemed a standard part of growing up a generation ago.

According to this timeline, a vaccine was licensed in 1967, and an improved one in 1971. And since then, I guess, nobody gets mumps. Another reminder of why paying a high percentage of our income for medical care is not exactly a bad thing.

Military Manpower Problem Solved!

Americans who worry that the U.S. military has been stretched to the breaking point to wage the endless war in Iraq and fulfill a vast and growing number of commitments around the world can rest easy.  Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has found a vast new pool of military personnel–in Montenegro.  Skeptics might point out that Montenegro has a population of 630,000, and may, therefore, not be much help on the manpower front.  But such people are just the chronic defeatists we hear so much about. 

Admittedly, it might seem a tad humiliating for the secretary of defense of the world’s sole remaining superpower to go, hat in hand, to a tiny country and ask for military assistance.  But when said superpower insists on fighting unnecessary and counterproductive wars, it can’t let pride get in the way of seeking aid.  With Iraq and Afghanistan both heating up, though, we need more realistic options than to court mini-states as strategic partners.

Tariff Bill Would Punish Millions of American Families

In an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription req.), Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) threaten to demand a vote on their bill that would drastically raise tariffs on imports from China if the Chinese government does not move quickly to strengthen the value of its currency.           

The senators claim that China’s currency, the yuan, is 15 to 40 percent undervalued against the dollar, giving Chinese imports an unfair advantage in the U.S. market and discouraging U.S. exports to China. China revalued its currency by 2.1 percent last summer and it has appreciated another 2 percent since then, but the senators say this is not enough. They blame China’s currency for our large bilateral trade deficit with China and the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs. Their bill would impose a hefty 27.5 percent tariff if China does not sharply revalue its currency within six months after the bill’s passage.

In a Cato Trade Briefing Paper, “Who’s Manipulating Whom?” published in July, I documented the fact that imports from China have not reduced America’s overall manufacturing output. In fact, since China fixed its currency in 1994, real output at U.S. factories has actually increased by 50 percent. The sectors where China is most competitive—lower-end, labor-intensive goods such as shoes, clothing, and toys—have been in decline in the United States for decades. Goods we used to import from other countries anyway are now imported directly from China. U.S. factories employ fewer workers than they did a decade ago not primarily because of imports from China but because remaining workers are so much more productive.

Imposing the steep tariff called for in the senators’ bill would surely hurt workers and producers in China, but it would also victimize millions of American consumers. More than three-quarters of what we imported from China last year were goods Americans use every day in their homes and offices—not only all those shoes, clothing items, and toys, but also sporting goods, bicycles, TVs, radios, stereos, and personal and laptop computers. The Schumer-Graham bill would be a direct, regressive tax on millions of low- and middle-income American families. It would also jeopardize tens of billions of dollars of sales American companies now make in China, our major, growing export market.

Chances are slim that the Schumer-Graham bill will become law anytime soon, but the fact that such a reckless piece of legislation would be considered on the floor of the Senate should be as troubling to Americans as to the Chinese.