We do not claim that the school funding system... is fundamentally flawed, only that there is no correlation at all between the level of per pupil funding and educational outcomes. —Deloitte
Hahahahaha! Ha! Haha! Haaaaaah. Okay. Now a little context.
Last November, the British government "published" a study of its state school system that it had commissioned from the accounting firm Deloitte. Maybe "published" is too strong a word, since there was apparently no press release, no news conference, no effort of any kind to make the public or the media aware of its existence. Perhaps that's because the study found no correlation between spending and achievement in Britain's state schools, and the current government's policy is to increase spending on state schools in an effort to be seen to be doing something.
The sad thing is, the same fundamentally flawed funding systems and dysfunctional political incentives exist in the United States, too... and with much the same effect:
Hat tip: Joanne Jacobs.
A story yesterday on CNNMoney.com describes the plight of Jenny Frank, who is young and eager to begin a career in teaching but hasn't been able to land a job. It's always sad to hear of people failing to find work in their chosen field, but the article in question completely misses a staggeringly important national story. As I mentioned this morning on Fox 'n' Friends: we have about 1.5 million too many teachers already!
Since 1970, public school enrollment has barely budged--up just 9 percent. Over the same period, employment has doubled. We've added 3 million new government school jobs. Half of those are teachers, another quarter are teachers' aides, and the rest are service personnel and bureaucrats. This hiring binge has contributed to a quadrupling in the real, inflation-adjusted cost of a k-12 education: from $38,000 to $150,000 (constant 2009 dollars). It has not contributed to improved student achievement which, at best, has been flat at the end of high-school over that entire period.
If we went back to the staff-to-pupil ratio of 1970, we'd save something like $200 billion annually. And since achievement didn't go up with the hiring boom, there's no reason to expect it would fall if we pared back the government school rolls. And if staff reductions were focused on the lowest-performers, we would likely see student learning gains as kids were pulled out of the classes of bad teachers and placed into the classes of better ones. Our classes are currently much smaller than those of other nations that outperform us anyway (about 22 to 24 students per class in the US, versus an international average of 29).
Alas, none of that is going to happen while the education of American children remains focused on serving the adults employed by the system rather than kids. But imagine if education were part of the free enterprise system, in which quality and efficiency are handsomely rewarded and failure is penalized. The right-sizing of America's education labor force would happen automatically, as parents shunned inneffective, expensive, overstaffed schools in favor of those that hired and retained only competent teachers--and only as many as are actually required to effectively reach children.
Isn't education important enough to do what actually works?
Finished with my woman
'Cause she couldn't help me with my mind
People think I'm insane
Because I am frowning all the time
- Black Sabbath, "Paranoid"
According to the Fordham Institute's Chester Finn, I and others like me are "paranoid." So why, like Ozzy Osbourne, am I "frowning all the time?" Because I look at decades of public schooling reality and, unlike Finn, see the tiny odds that "common" curriculum standards won't become federal standards, gutted, and our crummy education system made even worse.
Finn's rebuttal to my NRO piece skewering the push for national standards, unfortunately, takes the same tack he's used for months: Assert that the standards proposed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative are better than what most states have produced on their own; say that adopting them is "voluntary;" and note that we've got to do something to improve the schools.
Let's go one by one:
First, as Jay Greene has pointed out again and again, the objection to national standards is not that the proposed CCSSI standards are of poor quality (though not everyone, certainly, agrees with Finn's glowing assessment of them). The objection is that once money is attached to them -- once the "accountability" part of "standards and accountability" is activated -- they will either be dumbed down or just rendered moot by a gamed-to-death accountability system.
This kind of objection, by the way, is called "thinking a few steps ahead," not "paranoia."
It's also called "learning from history." By Fordham's own, constant admission, most states have cruddy standards, and one major reason for this is that special interests like teachers' unions -- the groups most motivated to control public schooling politics because their members' livelihoods come from the public schools -- get them neutered.
But if centralized, government control of standards at the state level almost never works, there is simply no good reason to believe that centralizing at the national level will be effective. Indeed, it will likely be worse with the federal government, whose money is driving this, in charge instead of states, and parents unable even to move to one of the handful of states that once had decent standards to get an acceptable education.
Next, let's hit the the "voluntary" adoption assertion. Could we puh-leaze stop with this one! Yes, as I note in my NRO piece, adoption of the CCSSI standards is technically voluntary, just as states don't have to follow the No Child Left Behind Act or, as Ben Boychuk points out in a terrific display of paranoia, the 21-year-old legal drinking age. All that states have to do to be free is "voluntarily" give up billions of federal dollars that came from their taxpaying citizens whether those citizens liked it or not!
So right now, if states don't want to sign on to national standards, they just have to give up on getting part of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund. And very likely in the near future, if President Obama has his way, they'll just have to accept not getting part of about $14.5 billion in Elementary and Secondary Education Act money.
Finally, there's the "we've got to do something to fix the schools" argument. I certainly agree that the education system needs fixing. My point is that it makes absolutely no sense to look at fifty centralized, government systems, see that they don't work, and then conclude that things would be better if we had just one centralized, government system. And no, that other nations have national standards proves nothing: Both those nations that beat us and those that we beat have such standards.
The crystal clear lesson for those who are willing to see it is that we need to decentralize control of education, especially by giving parents control over education funding, giving schools autonomy, and letting proven, market-based standards and accountability go to work.
Oh, right. All this using evidence and logic is probably just my paranoia kicking in again.
Yesterday, the president proposed yet another big increase in federal education spending. The Washington Post quoted "senior White House officials" as saying that the spending would boost "the nation's long-term economic health."
I sent the story's authors a blog post laying out the evidence that higher government spending hasn't raised student achievement, and that if you don't boost achievement, you don't accelerate economic growth.
Today, there is an updated version of the original WaPo story. It no longer mentions the stated goal of the spending increase. It doesn't mention that boosting gov't spending has failed to raise achievement, and so will fail to help the economy.
But it does cite a single non-government source for comment on the president's plan: the Committee for Education Funding. The Committee is described by the Post as "prominent education advocates," and as an organization that "represents dozens of education groups."
Here's how the CEF itself measures its accomplishments: "The... Committee [has] been very successful in championing the cause of increasing federal educational investment. Through strong advocacy... [it has] won bipartisan support for over $100 billion in increased federal education investment over the last five years." Its members, if you haven't guessed already, include virtually every public school employee organization you can name, including, of course, the national teachers unions.
That's the source, the one source, the Washington Post asked to weigh in on a new federal education spending gambit.
I asked the author of the revised version of the story to comment for this blog post. At the time of this writing, I've received no response.
Spend more money on education, the President says? Actually, we should be looking there for savings . . . here are some of the numbers:
State governments spent 35 percent of their general funds on K–12 education in 2007, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. In contrast, Medicaid — which is continually singled out as a problematic state-budget item, even though most Medicaid funds come from the federal government — accounted for just 17 percent of general-fund expenditures. Combined, state and local governments spend 27 cents of every dollar they collect on public K–12 education system, but only 8 cents on Medicaid.
I happened to catch the January 7 State of the State speech by Gov. Jim Douglas of Vermont on C-SPAN. It was a sober and serious presentation that laid out the facts about higher taxes and excessive spending, which are problems in just about every state.
Douglas on excessive education staffing Vermont:
Since 1997, school staffing levels have increased by 23 percent, while our student population has decreased by 11.5 percent. The number of teacher’s aides has gone up 43 percent. The number of support staff has gone up 48 percent. For every four fewer students a new teacher, teacher’s aide or staff person was hired. There are 11 students for every teacher – the lowest ratio in the country – and a staggering five students for every adult in our schools. With personnel costs accounting for 80 percent of total school spending, it’s no wonder that our K-12 system is among the most expensive in the nation at $14,000 per student per year.
Current staffing and compensation levels cannot be maintained as the student count continues to decline. If we simply move from our current 11 to 1 student/teacher ratio to 13 to 1, we would still have one of the lowest ratios in the country, while saving as much as $100 million. If we want to make education costs sustainable, we must return balance to classrooms. I propose that over four years we bring our statewide student/teacher ratio to affordable levels.
Douglas on excessive education bureaucracy:
Our school governance structures are a vestige of the 19th century and, like our unsustainable personnel costs, must be reformed. We have 290 separate school districts –- one for every 312 students –- 63 different supervisory bodies and a State Board of Education. That’s a total of 354 different education governing bodies for a state with only 251 towns.
Douglas on education financing:
At the root of our education funding challenge is a system that’s substantially eroding local control. Each year the connection between your school budget vote and your property tax bill becomes more and more distant. . . our education funding regime has grown into an unmanageable maze of exemptions, deductions, prebates, rebates, cost-shifts and hidden funding sources. Overlapping rings of complexity keep all but a few experts from understanding the many moving pieces. This is not good tax policy, not good government, and, if you ask most Vermonters, not good for much of anything. It’s time to pull back the curtains and let the sun shine in on how education is funded. Transparency – Who is paying? What are we paying for? What are the results?
Douglas on excessive education regulations:
Currently, Vermont schools are prohibited by law from accessing out-of-state distance learning programs ... If a school sought to provide a new Chinese program for this student, or even a group of students, they would have to hire a new teacher with the expertise – a costly step. Allowing students to access approved distance learning programs from around the country is a simple, affordable change we can make to improve quality.
Excessive staffing, complex bureaucracy, complex financing, and excessive regulation are problems in government education systems across the country. There is no better time than today, when states have large budget gaps, to tackle these chronic problems.
So kudos to Douglas. His speech was a contrast to that of Colorado's Gov. Bill Ritter, who followed him on C-SPAN uttering the usual lofty but vacuous speech we expect of most politicians.