Do Racial Disparities Explain Flat Student Performance?

The latest results of the Nation’s Report Card for history, geography, and civics are out, and as usual they are depressing. The exam, formally known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, is administered to a representative sample of U.S. students to give a snapshot of student performance in a variety of subjects nationwide. Education Week reports:

The nation’s eighth graders have made no academic progress in U.S. history, geography or civics since 2010, according to the latest test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Fewer than one-third of students scored proficient or better on any of the tests and only 3 percent or fewer scored at the advanced level in any of the three subjects.

No significant changes since 2010

However, Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners argues that saying students “have made no academic progress” is “the wrong way to look at it” because of something called Simpson’s Paradox (which has nothing to do with the voice of Principal Skinner and Mr. Burns turing down a $14 million contract):

This Is Why Amtrak Should Get More of Your Money?

An Amtrak locomotive caught fire yesterday on its way from Chicago to Milwaukee. Fortunately, all 51 passengers were safely evacuated from the six-car train.

At about the time the locomotive was burning, a reporter was telling me that “everyone” in Washington was saying that the Philadelphia accident proves that Amtrak needs more money. No doubt the Wisconsin incident will add to those calls for more funding.

But go back and read the first paragraph: There were only 51 passengers on that train. All of them could have fit on one motorcoach, many of which have 52 or more seats. The Horizon coaches used on this train typically have 60 seats, which means the train was less than one-sixth full. According to Amtrak’s performance report for fiscal year 2014, the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha trains filled an average of 36 percent of their seats in 2014, or about two-and-one-half buses worth.

Amtrak fares for its seven daily trains each way between Chicago and Milwaukee start at $24. According to Busbud, Greyhound and Megabus together offer 13 trips per day each way between Chicago and Milwaukee, and their fares are often as low as $7 and never higher than $10.

While intercity bus operators pay a discounted fuel tax, the buses otherwise operate without subsidy. Amtrak’s Hiawatha trains produced $16.8 million in ticket revenues in 2014 against $24.5 million in operating costs, for a net loss of $5.7 million (not counting amortized capital costs). The trains carried slightly less than 800,000 riders, for an average subsidy of slightly more than $7 per trip.

In other words, the subsidy alone would have been enough to give every single Hiawatha rider a free trip on Greyhound or Megabus (at the low cost of $7 per trip).

The IRS Folds, Returns 100% of Lyndon McLellan’s Money

Defying a demand from the federal government to stop publicizing his case, today Lyndon McLellan was told the IRS is abandoning its efforts to keep more than $107,000 it took from his bank account without ever charging him with a crime.

The case received national attention and outrage, including from a member of Congress, which led to this threatening message from an Assistant U.S. Attorney to McLellan’s lawyers:

Whoever made [the case file] public may serve their own interest but will not help this particular case. Your client needs to resolve this or litigate it. But publicity about it doesn’t help. It just ratchets up feelings in the agency. My offer is to return 50% of the money. 

So much for that; Mr. McLellan will be receiving 100% of his money back.  

Maryland Passes Tesla Bill

This week, people in Maryland got the news of Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature of HB 235, the so-called “Tesla Bill.” The law allows, for the first time, makers of electric cars to sell directly to consumers, bypassing traditional auto dealerships.

During the last few years, a number of states have prevented Tesla Motors from selling cars directly to consumers.  They have enforced laws that require the use of independent dealers to complete sales.

In the Summer 2014 issue of Regulation professor Daniel Crane explained that these laws are a legacy of past battles between dealers and legacy automakers like GM and Ford over the distribution of wealth losses during recessions and the number of dealerships whose fixed costs must be supported relative to Toyota and Honda.

This history has little to do with niche manufacturers like Tesla that do not want to use dealers.  But dealers do not want the possibility of non-dealer sales to spread to traditional manufacturers.     HB 235 codifies this sentiment. It allows Tesla and other electric car makers to sell directly to consumers.  But it preserves the status quo for all other traditional cars and trucks, whose dealers understood that not allowing a Tesla exception would focus undue attention on their regulatory protection and perhaps cause voters to demand more fundamental reform.

Marco Rubio’s Breathtaking Myopia

Sen. Marco Rubio might fancy himself as a new type of leader for a new era, but his speech yesterday to the Council on Foreign Relations was trapped in the past. Invoking John F. Kennedy’s final speech as president, more than 50 years ago, was bad enough. But Rubio’s overarching message – the Rubio Doctrine – amounts to warmed over Cold War dogma, sprinkled with the language of benevolent global hegemony favored by so many Washington elites, but disdained by most Americans beyond the Beltway. It is difficult to understand the depths of his political and strategic myopia.

Rubio misperceives the American public’s willingness to sustain the current model indefinitely, and therefore fails to appreciate the need for a genuinely new approach to U.S. global affairs. He minimizes the costs and risks of our current foreign policies, and oversells the benefits. He ignores the way in which U.S. security assurances to a host of some-of-the-time allies have discouraged these countries from taking reasonable steps to defend themselves and their interests. And he fails to see any reasonable alternative to a world in which the United States acts – forever, it seems – as the sole guarantor of global security. Specifically, Rubio pledged: “As president, I will use American power to oppose any violations of international waters, airspace, cyberspace, or outer space.” (Any? Whew!) 

To be sure, many people around the world may be happy to allow U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines to attempt such an ambitious undertaking, and to have American taxpayers pick up the tab. It is reasonable to guess that most foreign leaders are anxious to preserve the current order – so long as the U.S. government provides for their defense, they are free to spend their money on other things. But the fact that foreigners like this arrangment doesn’t explain why most Americans would. When Rubio calls for huge increases in the Pentagon’s budget, he is telling Americans that they should be content to accept higher taxes, more debt, and less money to spend here at home, so that U.S. allies elsewhere can neglect their defenses, and feed their bloated welfare states.

Mr. President, Don’t Scapegoat Private Schools

It is not often I get a chance to latch on to someone as high profile as the President of the United States saying that public schools “draw us together.” But in his appearance at Georgetown University a couple of days ago, President Obama blamed, among other things, people sending their children to private schools for breaking down social cohesion and reducing opportunities for other children.

First, let’s get our facts straight: Private schools are not the main way better-off people, or people with high social capital, isolate themselves from poor families. Only 9 percent of school children attend private schools, and as Matt Ladner points out in a great response to the President, that percentage has been dropping over the years. No, the main way the better-off congregate amongst themselves is buying houses in nice places, which translates into access to good school districts. Even the large majority of the mega-rich appear to send their children to public schools, but rather than paying school tuition, their tuition is the far-steeper, far more exclusive price of a house. And let’s not pretend – as the President hinted – that we’ve seen anything close to long-term decreased funding for public schools. Even with a slight dip during the Great Recession, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending in public schools has well more than doubled since 1970.

On the deeper point, do we really know that public schools “draw us together,” and more importantly, do so better than private schooling? No, we don’t. That’s the accepted wisdom, but basic history doesn’t necessarily bear it out. Roman Catholics ended up starting their own school system – which at its peak in 1965 enrolled about 12 percent of all students – because the de facto Protestant public schools could not accommodate them. African-Americans, of course, were long legally excluded from public schools, especially white public schools. Similar situations existed for Asians and Mexican-Americans in some parts of the country. And, of course, public schools reflected the communities they served, which were often small and homogeneous. Finally, public schooling forces diverse people into a single system, which has led to seemingly incessant, cohesion-tearing clashes over values, personal identities, and much more.

Amtrak’s Budget

In the wake of the terrible train crash near Philadelphia, people are asking whether Amtrak budget cuts could have been a contributing factor. The short answer is that federal rail spending has not been cut. The longer answer is that rail spending has been greatly misallocated by Congress. Rather than being spent on maintenance along heavily used corridors (particularly in the Northeast), the federal rail budget has been frittered away on uneconomical rural routes and high-speed rail schemes.

In the federal budget, Amtrak is within the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The president estimated that fiscal 2015 outlays on the FRA would be $3.6 billion. Of that, $250 million is for Amtrak operating subsidies, $1.1 billion is for Amtrak capital grants, $1.8 billion is for high-speed rail grants, and the rest is for safety, research, and other rail activities.  

The chart shows total FRA outlays from 1990 to 2015 in current dollars (not adjusting for inflation). Outlays have soared in recent years, partly due to rising high-speed rail spending. During 2009 to 2015, high-speed rail grants were $2 million, $16 million, $304 million, $513 million, $768 million, $1.1 billion, and $1.8 billion. But even aside from that spending, FRA outlays were up modestly over the past decade.