Would you agree to sell your soul? And not just sell it, but sell it for an undisclosed prize? The states of Maryland and Kentucky would: Both have endorsed as-yet unpublished national curriculum standards for mathematics and language arts, declaring that they will relinquish their ability to set their own standards -- to control their own educational souls -- in those key subjects.
Alright, maybe they haven't completely signed away their souls in exchange for what they hope will be supernaturally inspired standards. For one thing, both states could still turn away from the final standards if they end up being utterly horrific. More important, it's not really the standards that the states are Faustian-bargaining for. As this Washington Post article makes clear, it is the federal money at stake in the Obama administration's Race to the Top. So Maryland isn't about to give up control of it's educational destiny in exchange for truly extraordinary standards, but a mere $250 million -- a big chunk of change to you and me, but just 2% of the nearly $11.1 billion the state spends on K-12 education.
Unfortunately, the transparent protestations of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other national-standards supporters notwithstanding, what is making states endorse such standards is no powerful argument that the standards will improve education, but an obvious pursuit of federal ducats. But is that how we should want education run? States taking standards just to get DC dollars? Unfortunately, being bought by Washington -- with no meaningful achievement improvements to show for it -- is what states have been doing for decades, though never have they given up their ability to set their own standards.
With that in mind, readers are reminded that on the day that the final, proposed national standards are due to be released, we will be having a debate at Cato that will get past all the bribery and sound bites, and for once tackle the reality of national standards. What logic concludes, political realism makes clear, and the research reveals about national standards will be front and center, and national standards will finally be given the no-holds-barred vetting that states and their citizens deserve.
As I have explained on numerous occasions, supporters of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) -- which would end federal guaranteed student loans, turn everything into lending direct from Uncle Sam, and spend the resulting savings and way much more -- have often shamelessly promoted the bill as a boon to taxpayers when it will almost certainly cost them tens-of-billions. Where they have generally been right is in rebutting criticisms that SAFRA would be a federal takeover of a private industry. With lender profits all but assured under federal guaranteed lending, the vast majority of student loans haven't been truly private for decades.
Unfortunately, SAFRA advocates are just as clueless -- or, more likely, rhetorically unbridled -- about what constitutes a private entity as are status-quo supporters. Case in point, an article in today's Huffington Post that, along with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, attempts to portray the suddenly rocky road ahead for SAFRA as a result of evil lender lobbyists dropping boulders in the selfless legislation's way:
Taking aim at Sallie Mae, the largest student lender in the country and a driving force behind the lobbying effort, Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Tuesday accused the company of using taxpayer funds to lobby and advertise, and cast its executives as white-collar millionaires uninterested in serious education reform.
"Sallie Mae executives have paid themselves hundreds of millions of dollars in the last decade while teachers, nurses, and scientists -- the backbone of the new economy -- face crushing debt because of runaway college tuition costs," Duncan said.
Here Sallie Mae is painted in the same ugly hues as Lehman Brothers, AIG, and all the other supposedly rapacious, unscrupulous companies whose unchecked greed, we're told, brought the American economy to its knees. (We also get the baseless but obligatory pronouncement about "crushing debt" for teachers and other toilers for the "public good.")
But wait! Doesn't "Sallie Mae" sound a lot like"Fannie Mae" and "Freddie Mac"? Of course! That's because just like Fannie and Freddie, Sallie was created by the federal government, only with Sallie's job being to furnish lots of cheap college loans. And guess what? Just like Fannie and Freddie, Sallie became by far the biggest kid on her block because her huge federal creator fed her and protected her for decades, not setting her off on her own until 1996. But that part of her story doesn't fit anywhere into the evil corporation narrative, so it's just not mentioned. All we need to know is Sallie is private, her owners and employees make a lot of money, and that is why she is evil and dangerous.
And so the politics of demonization and denial, a staple of the recession blame game, continues. Private institutions are portrayed as malevolent predators and government as a warm, pure, protective father-figure. But there is much more accurate imagery possible when it comes to Sallie Mae: Egomaniacal Dr. Frankenstein furiously blaming the monster he created for doing exactly what he built it to do.
And some wonder why there's such widespread outrage -- the real reason SAFRA is in trouble -- about ever-expanding federal power?
Speaking to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, education secretary Arne Duncan said that "he would gladly cut federal red tape if institutions, in return, showed greater progress on improving student performance." So the secretary supports less government intrusion in education if schools show improvement.
Except he doesn't. Not at the K-12 level, anyway. Because Arne Duncan has advocated a slow death for the DC voucher program that his own Department of Education shows is... wait for it... significantly improving outcomes while getting government out of the business of running schools altogether.
But maybe that's the problem. Schools work better the smaller the role government plays in them, but that means we don't really need a secretary of education at all, do we?
The debate over No Child Left Behind re-authorization is upon us.
Except it isn't.
In his recent speech kicking off the discussion, education secretary Arne Duncan asked not whether the central federal education law should be reauthorized, he merely asked how.
Let's step back a bit, and examine why we should end federal intervention in (and spending on) our nation's schools... in one thousand words or less:
While the flat trend lines for overall achievement at the end of high school mask slight upticks for minority students (black students' scores, for instance, rose by 3-5 percent of the 500 point NAEP score scale), even those modest gains aren't attributable to federal spending. Almost that entire gain happened between 1980 and 1988, when federal spending per pupil declined.
And, in the twenty years since, the scores of African American students have drifted downard while federal spending has risen stratospherically.
In a major speech to be delivered today, education secretary Arne Duncan will call for an end to "'tired arguments' about education reform" and ask for input in crafting a "sweeping reauthorization" of the federal No Child Left Behind act. His decision not to openly debate the merits of reauthorization -- to simply assume it -- guarantees the tiredness and futility of the discussion.
Americans have spent $1.85 trillion on federal education programs since 1965, and yet student achievement at the end of high school has stagnated while spending per pupil has more than doubled -- after adjusting for inflation. The U.S. high school graduation rate and adult literacy rates have been declining for decades. The gap in achievement between children of high school dropouts and those of college graduates hasn't budged by more than a percent or two despite countless federal programs aimed at closing it.
The secretary himself acknowledges that after more than half a century of direct and increasing federal involvement in schools, "we are still waiting for the day when every child in America has a high quality education that prepares him or her for the future.
In light of the abject and expensive failure of federal intrusion in America's classrooms, it is irresponsible for the Secretary of Education to assume without debate that this intrusion should continue. Cutting all federal k-12 education programs would result in a permanent $70 billion annual tax cut. Given the stimulative benefits of such a tax cut it is also fiscally irresponsible for the Obama administration to ignore the option of ending Congress' fruitless meddling in American schools.
For years we've been told that charter schools are the future of public schooling. The reverse is true.
The pattern in publicly funded education, both domestically and internationally, has always been one of increasing regulation over time, and of the triumph of producer interests over the interests of parents and children. Public schools in the late 1800s had considerably more autonomy than do most modern charter schools. Over time, public schools have come under the sway of centralized bureaucracies dominated by employee unions.
That same pattern is playing out in the charter school sector. As the Associated Press reports today, the American Federation of Teachers has just signed several more collective bargaining agreements for charter school teachers in New York City and Chicago. Meanwhile, federal education secretary Arne Duncan has been calling for more government "accountability" (read: "regulation") for charters, singing from the union's hymnal. From the AP:
AFT president Randi Weingarten said the administration's push for more charter schools must come with stricter regulation. "You can't do one without the other," Weingarten said.
Duncan struck the same tone Monday, saying that only high-quality charters should be allowed to operate.
If you want to know what charter schools will look like in a generation or so, just look at the public school status quo.