The Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF) has sounded the alarm: Donald Trump’s proposal to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education (ED) would be pure loss because a lot of people use federal education money. Lost jobs, lost college access, lost learning. Which makes sense if you assume that the federal government miracles money into existence, people can’t adjust to changing circumstances, and federal control can only help.
Of course, the federal government does not just will money into existence. It does spend far more than it has, but sooner or later someone is going to have to pay for that. And money arriving through taxation comes from people who may have used it for other, more productive things. Taxpayers may have spent it on new businesses, or housing, or food, or lots of other things that would have potentially grown the economy and created new jobs. Or heck, just made them happier. So there are costs—maybe big ones—that CAPAF ignored: opportunity costs.
Then there are costs to dealing with ED demands. Yes, as CAPAF points out, the department has a relatively small workforce—about 4,300 full-time equivalent employees—but that is in part because ED makes states do a lot of the administrative heavy lifting, forcing them to hire a lot of bureaucrats. There is also a sizeable compliance cost that goes with federal programs. The latest available numbers I could find were from a 1998 report—pretty old—but that precedes the No Child Left Behind Act, which greatly expanded federal management. That report suggested that for every dollar sent to Washington only 85 cents made it back to local districts, and noted that there were nearly three times as many state employees being funded by federal money as ED employees.
How would ED be eliminated? While it is unclear how Trump would do it—details do not seem to be his thing—he would likely phase the department out, not just kill it all at once. Of course, he could just move the programs elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy. But assuming that by killing ED he means to kill the programs, he would probably phase them out, leaving states, districts, colleges, and students time to adjust. And if he were to couple phasing out the programs with, say, proportionate tax relief, or even just block grants to states, that money could still be used for education! It would not necessarily mean any lost teacher jobs, student aid, or anything else. It could just mean that instead of losing 15 cents in bureaucratic processing for each dollar, taxpayers could keep the whole buck!
Would trimming what we spend necessarily even be bad educationally? Signs pretty clearly point to “no.” As the graph below shows, as well as this report on SAT scores, large spending increases haven’t come close to producing commensurate improvements in achievement, at least as measured by standardized tests for high school kids. Those scores have essentially sat still. Same for staffing: In roughly the same period as is covered in the graph, public schools went from about 14 students per staff member, to just 8 students, approaching a doubling of employees per child. Even the high-school graduation rate “all-time highs” that sound so nice aren’t: CAPAF cited a report based on only four years of data, and longer-term data show in 1969–70—close to when the feds first got heavily involved in education—the average freshman graduation rate for public schools was 78.7 percent. As of 2012–13—the latest data on the chart—it was 81.9 percent. Hardly a huge increase, and possibly one inflated by “credit recovery” and other dubious practices. Oh, and the feds coerced states to adopt a single curriculum standard—the Common Core—only to see tremendous backlash after the public finally became aware of what had been foisted on them. At the very least, great political acrimony and stomach-churning educational turbulence have been the result.
The evidence—more of which can be found here—suggests that in K–12 education, federal involvement may well be a loss, not a gain.
How about higher ed? Federal student aid, it is becoming increasingly certain, has largely translated into skyrocketing prices, major non-completion, credential inflation, and big student debt. Hardly the pure affordability effect that is all CAPAF discusses. You can get more in-depth on higher education here.
There is one other thing that ought to be mentioned, though it may seem passé: Washington has no constitutional authority to meddle in education outside of DC itself, federal installations, and prohibiting state and local discrimination in education provision. Yet the vast majority of what ED does goes far beyond those things. Ignoring the Constitution comes with costs all of its own, which CAPAF—and everyone else—may learn very quickly if there is a President Trump and he, among other things, unilaterally tries to change federal education policy. You know, like President Obama.
CAPAF portrays the U.S. Department of Education as all gain, and it’s possible ending all pain. But there is a whole other side to federal education meddling: costs. And they are big.
The Center for American Progress has a new paper out calling for the demise of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), one of the primary accrediting bodies of for-profit colleges. The paper accuses ACICS of being negligent in its accrediting practices, and as a result enabling loads of students and federal aid dollars to flow to bad schools. And ACICS may well be lax, though there is a big debate about exactly what the role of an accreditor is: college watchdog, or friendly advisor? But ACICS itself is not what I mainly want to discuss here. No, it is the evidence that for-profit schools are perhaps being unfairly targeted rather than being particularly bad actors.
The first bit of evidence is something I’ve hinted at before: lots of suits have been brought against for-profit schools, typically by state attorneys general, but few have ended in findings of guilt. As CAP’s paper helpfully itemizes, most accusations, at least for ACICS accredited schools, have been settled with “no finding or admission of fault by the college.” And in the most notable case of a court finding a for-profit guilty—the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges—the judgement was issued without a trial because Corinthian no longer existed and could not defend itself.
Many of the state AGs who have brought suits—including in California, Kentucky, and Massachusetts—have pursued higher political office. California’s Kamala Harris is running for the U.S. Senate. Kentucky’s Jack Conway unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2015. Former Massachusetts AG Martha Coakley ran for governor in 2014.
Were the suits motivated by a desire to raise the AGs’ profiles? No one but the AGs themselves knows their motivations, and they may well have concluded that the schools had intentionally done illegal things. But it is hard not to also see for-profit schools as relatively easy, unsympathetic targets. Moreover, it is possible that many schools settled not because they thought they were guilty, especially of systematic illegality, but because they did not want their names dragged through the mud anymore. In addition, unlike the AGs, they had to use their own money to defend themselves.
The CAP report also largely brushes off a contention that is crucial—but oft neglected—to understanding the seemingly poor outcomes of the proprietary sector: they work with students facing big obstacles in hugely disproportionate amounts. Writes author Ben Miller, “That argument is not necessarily accurate according to detailed reviews of literature around student default, which found that race and ethnicity do matter for default but that degree completion status is typically the strongest predictor of default.”
Of course, the abilities and personal situations of students have a ton to do with degree completion. And this is not primarily about race. Students at for-profit schools are much more likely to be African-American, but also older, low-income, and dealing with children and full-time jobs than students in other sectors, including community colleges. Indeed, a report on accreditors released by the U.S. Department of Education just yesterday reveals that among major accreditors ACICS member institutions have the highest percentage of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants, a rough proxy for income. 74 percent of students at ACICS accredited schools receive Pell, versus, for instance, 38 percent among schools accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, and 32 percent at the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
Now, maybe the schools should choose not to work with a lot of students who face too many obstacles. But it is the federal government that gives the students much of the funding with which they pay for these schools, on the general principle that everyone should have access to college. And the feds do this without trying to meaningfully evaluate if the students are ready. So, essentially, the for-profit schools, but also the community colleges and nonselective public and nonprofit private schools, which are all seeing poor outcomes, are just doing what the feds want them to do.
Again, the evidence—all of it—needs to be considered before singling out for-profit schools for censure. Too often, it doesn’t seem to be.
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.
Act 2, scene 1 of Verdi's opera Il Trovatore is marked by a lot Gypsy blacksmiths wailing away on their anvils. Sensibly enough, this has come to be called the "Anvil Chorus." There is an equally clamorous chorus calling for universal federally-funded preschooling—one that president Obama may join this evening in his State of the Union address. It should be called the Anvil Chorus, too, because if it is successful it will tie an anvil 'round the neck of early education and American taxpayers.
The trouble with federal-government-funded preschooling is that we have 47 years of experience with it ... and it doesn't work. The federal Head Start pre-K program was created in 1965, and despite decades of concerted efforts to refine and improve it it has virtually no measurable effects that last to the end of the third grade—or even the first. And of the very few and modest effects that have been found at the end of the third grade, some are actually negative. That is what federal government pre-K has accomplished with $200 billion and half a century of effort. Is that a sensible basis for expanding federal government pre-K?
Those large-scale randomized studies of Head Start are not the only indication that federal government spending on pre-K (and K-12) programs is ineffective. We can also look at the performance gap, at the end of high school, between the children of high school dropouts and those of college graduates. This is the key gap—between children in advantaged and disadvantaged families—that federal compensatory education programs set out to close in 1965. Below is a chart I prepared just a few years ago, documenting that gap using the reading section of the best national data set available (the "Long Term Trends" series of the National Assessment of Educational Progress). The results are equally disappointing in math and science (see Figure 20.5, here).
Nor should we be surprised by the failure of federal pre-K-through-12 programs to narrow this gap—they have failed just as badly in their other aim of improving overall student achievement, as the following chart of federal spending and student achievement at the end of high-school reveals.
Overcome by the sound of their own chorus, universal federal pre-K advocates are deaf to this evidence. For the sake of the children they seek, ineffectually, to help, let's hope they are unable to fasten their anchor around the necks of current and future generations of taxpayers.
According to the latest buzz, President Obama may suggest dramatically expanding federal government preschool programs in his State of the Union address next week. That, at any rate, is the recommendation of a new report from an institute closely associated with the admnistration.
There are just two problems with this plan: 1) it's already been tried; 2) it doesn't work.
We now have 45 years of experience with, and two top-quality randomized studies of, the national Head Start pre-school program, and the results are disappointing. Head Start was meant to close the gap in student achievement between the children of advantaged and disadvantaged families. But, at the end of high school, the gap in achievement between the children of college graduates and those of high school dropouts has remained essentially unchanged since the program was introduced. We have even more direct evidence from two large national studies of the program commissioned by the very agency that administers it: the Department of Health and Human Services. These studies find no significant benefits to Head Start at the end of the third grade--or even at the end of the first.
So why double-down on a failed program? The most plausible (and charitable) explanation is a bad case of wishful thinking. Many people make the mistake of improperly generalizing from two or three tiny pre-school programs of earlier decades which did show some lasting benefits. Sadly the federal government's nationwide Head Start program has not replicated those benefits despite generations of unrelenting effort. And there is no reason to imagine that it will suddenly start doing so if expanded even further.
Trying to fix failed federal preschool programs by dumping more money on them is like trying to make up per-unit losses by increasing sales volume. Sadly, that's about the level of economic acumen demonstrated by recent administrations.
At the Volokh Conspiracy, my occasional co-author Jonathan Adler dresses down PolitiFact-Georgia for declaring "false" my claim that Georgia law prohibits state employees from implementing an ObamaCare Exchange. If you place faith in "fact checkers," you might not want to read it. My response to PolitiFact-Georgia is here.
The website CapitolWords.org allows you to track the use of words uttered by members of Congress. Our intern wrangler, Michael Hamilton, decided to compare uses of the term "Cato Institute" to the names of other think tanks around town. Here's what he found:
Cato is mentioned roughly equally by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. It's hard to draw conclusions based solely on members' use of the names of think tanks, but it seems clear that Democrats and Republicans make roughly equal use of Cato research in making appeals to their colleagues and the public.
Note: The Brookings Institution is sometimes misstated as "Brookings Institute," so both are included.