Activists in Florida found a way to torture the state's education spending data to make appear as though Florida is 50th in education spending. The only catch is that their rather unconventional method ranks Washington D.C. as 51st, despite the fact that D.C. spends nearly $30,000 per pupil, putting it in first place for spending per pupil according to the U.S. Census Bureau (page 11, table 11).
How did they accomplish this literally unbelievable statistical feat? As Patrick Gibbons explains at RedefinED, the activists have inappropriately seized on the U.S. Census Bureau's "education revenues per $1,000 of personal income" figure. Holding all else constant, Florida could improve its ranking using that figure either by spending more on education or by its citizens becoming poorer. Gibbons crunched the numbers to see what it would take to put Florida in 24th place, just above the median, without increasing spending:
To reach the “above average” point on the spending-per-income statistic, Florida would need education revenues of $49.15 per $1,000 of personal income. Without spending a dime more, or less, on education, Florida could boost its ranking to 24th in the nation if its collective income simply shrank by 26 percent.
Florida would become THE POOREST state in the U.S., but we would have above-average education spending – at least according to this misleading metric. Something tells me nobody will be happy with those results.
Embedded in the activists' use of this figure is the odd notion that it costs more to educate students from wealthier states than students from poorer states. Indeed, if every state had exactly the same "education revenues per $1,000 of personal income" then rich states would far outspend poor states, yet I suspect that the activists citing this figure would not be pleased.
The organization peddling this nonsense is not alone. A group clamoring for more education spending in Colorado used the same deceptive tactic in 2012. In just the last year, numerous groups have claimed that their state is 50th in education spending, including the NEA in Arizona, Public Advocates Inc. in California (citing Education Week), an academic in Idaho (citing the U.S. Census Bureau), and a media outlet in Utah (citing the National Center for Education Statistics). Most of these organizations at least have respectable sources upon which to rely. Since the rankers employ varying methods of accounting for spending, groups in numerous states can plausibly claim that they are at the bottom in education spending (unlike the groups in Florida and Colorado). One year, groups in eight states claimed that their state was second-to-last in spending. Many of these groups, including the one in Florida, have sued their respective states in an effort to persuade the courts to force the state legislatures to spend more.
These groups assume that spending more will lead to improved student outcomes, but there is no strong correlation between education spending and performance. Moreover, increasing spending has not consistently yielded improved outcomes, as Harvard University's Paul E. Peterson, Stanford University's Eric Hanushek, and the University of Munich's Ludgar Woessmann found in a 2012 study:
Just about as many high-spending states showed relatively small gains as showed large ones. Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey enjoyed substantial gains in student performance after committing substantial new fiscal resources. But other states with large spending increments—New York, Wyoming, and West Virginia, for example—had only marginal test-score gains to show for all that additional expenditure. And many states defied the theory by showing gains even when they did not commit much in the way of additional resources. It is true that on average, an additional $1000 in per-pupil spending is associated with an annual gain in achievement of one-tenth of 1 percent of a standard deviation. But that trivial amount is of no statistical or substantive significance. Overall, the 0.12 correlation between new expenditure and test-score gain is just barely positive.
Torture the data long and hard enough and they'll confess to almost anything. The statistical Torquemadas in Florida found a way to make Washington D.C. look like the lowest spender instead of the highest. But as D.C. illustrates, what matters most is not how much is spent but how it is spent.
Let's face it: everyone is trying to make a profit. There's nothing wrong with that—it's normal, with people doing things because they feel they'll make them better off. The problem starts when you insist that you're a saint—that you're somehow far more selfless than most other people—and you just can't keep up the charade any longer. Welcome to the Democratic Party's teacher union problem.
It seems that trying to keep the party's union-heavy base happy while simultaneously appearing unbeholden to entrenched interests is going to be a tricky balancing act for the Democrats. But dealing with teachers unions—which adding the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers together have about 4.7 million members—is going to be particularly treacherous. Educators are by far the biggest unionized bloc, and almost certainly the most troublesome. Indeed, as the Los Angeles Times reports today, Democrats are particularly rent asunder on education issues, and a new movie about a parent taking on the union to turn a bad public school into a charter school—the so-called parent trigger—is driving another wedge.
The movie, Won't Back Down, has already been panned by AFT president Randi Weingarten. But at least her union—unlike the larger and more obstinate National Education Association—acknowledges that there are education problems, and maybe the unions' time-honored demand of "more money and no accountability" has had something to do with them.
"We bear a lot of responsibility for this," Weingarten recently told the New York Times. "We were focused—as unions are—on fairness and not as much on quality."
No doubt part of the reason that at least the AFT is accepting a little blame is that it sees that teachers unions are losing the sympathies of many members of the public. People are seemingly growing tired of seeing unionized educators enjoying good incomes and expensive perks while those paying the taxes struggle and test scores languish.
The problem with the union reinvention—at least as captured by the Weingarten quote—is that it probably strikes many people as hollow. Why? Because they know that unions are run by normal people and represent normal people, and what they want first and foremost is not what's best for kids or "fairness," but getting as good a deal for themselves as possible. In other words, they are starting to see through unions' selfless-angels facade—the public relations sham of people just wanting a living wage while they give the mythical 110 percent "for the kids" —and are glimpsing normal, profit-seeking human beings who have had a fairly cushy deal over the decades.
Teachers unions, as those of us at Cato's Center for Educational Freedom have said, are not the root problem in education, nor are they or the people they represent any more evil or good than most other people. The root educational problem is that public schools are government schools, and politics—which cannot be detached from government—rewards concentrated special interests, of which unionized teachers are among the biggest.
For the Democratic Party, the big problem is that for decades the teachers unions have insisted that they and their members as far more noble than almost anyone else. At least, more noble than anyone openly seeking a profit, which is most people. But the public is catching on: teachers and their unions are just as self-interested as most other people, and government-run schooling has enabled them to get some awfully nice, taxpayer-funded deals. So what do you do? Acknowledge the paper-mache wings have fallen off and risk the wrath of the teacher unionists, or keep up the angelic charade and hope the public stops noticing reality? Neither is a happy prospect for the Democratic Party.
This weekend I opened The Washington Post to find the editors arguing that Congress should cut federal subsidies to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Institute of Peace, and the National Endowment of the Arts, and George F. Will arguing that Congress should preserve federal subsidies to Teach for America.
...President Obama and Congress were doling out tens-of-billions of dollars to the education status quo while doing little of meaningful, reform-y substance. Now we see the payoff: President Obama has gotten bipartisan accolades for supposedly being a different kind of Democrat on education -- one willing to take on teacher unions -- while he's fully kept union allegiances.
Reports the Washington Post about National Education Association plans to spend $15 million on largely Dem-friendly, midterm-election advertisements:
Karen M. White, the NEA's political director, said the 3.2 million-member union is in sync with Obama more often than not. As an example, she pointed to his support for a $10 billion education funding bill that the Democratic-led Congress passed in August over Republican opposition.
"That education jobs bill got so many of our members engaged," White said. "It was a turning point for us."
She played down controversy over Obama's school reform agenda as "bumps in the road," adding, "we share the same goals as this administration."
It really wasn't hard to see the politics at play here: Talk a lot about reform, expend riches to protect the status quo, win good will from all sides. And heck, who gets hurt? Only taxpayers and students, that's all.
The hard-nosed, content-at-all-cost folks at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation have been warned, and warned, and warned some more: Get the national curriculum standards you think are so incredibly important, and they will almost certainly be captured by the pedagogical progressives who have dominated education for decades -- and whose notions you disdain. Well, if what's being reported by Common Core's Lynne Munson -- and reiterated in this lamentation for Massachusetts by the Pioneer Institute's Jim Stergios -- is accurate, that is already happening. (Actually, some prominent analysts have long said that the national standards -- created by the Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governors Association -- are already nothing the Fordhamites should embrace.) Writes Munson:
This is strange. P21 is being subsumed into CCSSO. There’s nothing to be read about this on either CCSSO’s or P21′s websites. But according to Fritzwire the two organizations have formed a “strategic management relationship” that will commence December 1.
So what is P21 -- the group cozying up with the standards-writing CCSSO -- you ask? Let the Fordham Institute tell you:
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) has some powerful supporters, including the NEA, Cisco, Intel, and Microsoft. Fourteen states have also climbed aboard its effort to refocus American K-12 education on global awareness, media literacy and the like--and to defocus it on grammar, multiplication tables and the causes of the Civil War. Its swell-sounding yet damaging notions have been plenty influential--but the unmasking and truth-telling have begun, thanks in large part to a valiant little organization named Common Core. And new research validates this and other skeptics’ criticisms. Today the contest resembles David vs. Goliath--but remember who ultimately prevailed in that one.
Uh-oh. It might be time to end the biblical references -- it looks more and more like Goliath is going to win.
In the gag-inducing tradition of National Education Association propaganda, President Obama's "Organizing for America" has released the video below taking issue with House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) calling teachers a "special interest." Watch...and wince.
Now, certainly many teachers want nothing more than to teach and do a good job. Some might even do it as much "for the kids" as their own personal satisfaction. But teachers, at least as represented by the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, sure as heck are a special interest. Indeed, they might be called a super-special interest, with unparalled sway over Democrats especially, and an incredible ability to get money out of taxpayers.
But what about teachers' saintliness?
Certainly many teachers work hard and spend some money out of their own pockets for the kids. But no public-school teacher is so poor that, unlike the no doubt intentionally bedgraggled-looking Jeff in the video, he or she can't afford anything other than an undershirt to wear. Indeed, as I made clear in my PA Unbearable Burden? Living and Paying Student Loans as a First-Year Teacher, even the lowest-paid public school teachers can afford nice apartments, good food, and much beyond life's essentials. And the average teacher, on an hourly basis, earns more than the average accountant, nurse, or insurance unerwriter.
Ah, but teachers work "twelve, thirteen hours" a day, right? I mean, isn't that what destitute Jeff said?
Again, maybe some do, but the vast majority do not. Indeed, according to time-diary research done a few years ago, during the months when teachers are actually working as teachers -- so not including lengthy summer and other vacations -- the average teacher only does about 7.3 hours of education work inside or outside the school on weekdays, and about two hours on weekends. That's 18 minutes less per day than the average person in a comparable, full-time professional job. And again, that doesn't account for teachers' long, built-in vacations.
So get off it, teacher unionists and apologists. Teacher unions are a gigantic special interest, and all the super-earnest-sounding, unkempt video subjects in the world aren't going to change that.
As the Obama administration continues to send mixed signals about the proposed $23 billion public-school bailout, rescue advocates are offering some very wimpy defenses of their cause. That is, except for the National Education Association, which has launched a PR blitz for the bailout in its grandest -- and most shameless -- tradition of using cute kids to get lots of dues-paying members:
OK, enough of the NEA. The more numerous defenses of the bailout try to offer more reasoned and less emotional arguments for the bailout than does the NEA. But not much more reasoned.
Case in point, the The Atlantic's Derek Thompson, who takes issue with an op-ed I had in the New York Post yesterday making clear that even cutting 300,000 public-school employees -- the worst-case scenario -- would hardly be the "catastrophe" people like U.S. Secretary of Arne Duncan say it would be. As I wrote, even that cut would only constitute a 4.8 percent reduction in the public K-12 workforce. More important, we have seen decades of huge per-pupil spending and staffing increases in education with essentially no accompanying improvement in academic achievement. In other words, even far bigger cuts than the worst-case scenario would likely have little adverse effect on achievement.
So the worst cuts wouldn't actually be that big, and they'd likely have little negative effect on achievement. But to Thompson, they'd be akin to the suffering of cold-turkey drug rehab:
At the risk of invoking a cliche, our education system is a bit like a painkiller junkie who just had his wisdom teeth pulled. In the long term, we probably want to wean the patient off drugs. In the short term, the patient happens to be in dire need of some drugs.
Perhaps more troubling than this overwrought analogy is that Thompson dismisses my complaint that the $23 billion bailout would, in addition to being educationally worthless, add to our staggering national debt. $23 billion, Thompson essentially says, is just too small a piece of federal change to complain about its debt implications.
"Well," he writes, "if we're playing the put-it-in-context game, $23 billion is 'only' 0.6% of the 2010 budget. An unfortunate bailout, perhaps, but hardly catastrophic..."
OK. If the game we're supposed to be playing is the "this-expenditure-isn't-all-that-big" game, then we can forget about ever cutting the $13 trillion debt. Heck, the Defense Department's budget in FY 2010 was "only" about $693 billion, a mere 5.3 percent of the national debt.
Joining the bailout defense today is White House Council of Economic Advisors chair Christina Romer, who pushes for it in the Washington Post.
In addition to repeating the usual, now thoroughly debunked proclamations of impending educational disaster, Romer rolls out boilerplate about the government needing to maintain high employment in order to keep people spending and paying taxes:
Because unemployed teachers have to cut back on spending, local businesses and overall economic activity suffer. And the costs of decreased learning time and support for students will be felt not just in the next year or two but will reduce our productivity for decades to come...
Furthermore, by preventing layoffs, we would save on unemployment insurance payments, food stamps and COBRA subsidies for health insurance, and we would maintain tax revenue.
Given the at-best highly dubious short-term positive effects of the "stimulus," it is hard to believe that too many people at this point will find these arguments persuasive. Worse yet, Romer glosses right over the fact that the mammoth debt will eventually have to be repaid, and that that will have huge negative effects for local businesses and everyone else as their money goes from useful pursuits to government debt repayment.
In light of how flaccid the arguments are for the bailout, it's really no surprise that the Obama administration is sending mixed signals about how much it really wants the rescue. By offering some support -- including having the Education Secretary appear at the launch of the NEA's PR blitz -- the administration keeps on the good side of the teachers unions. But by not going all out, the administration doesn't end up too closely connected to a debt-be-damned expenditure that neither addresses a real emergency, nor has any meaningful connection to education quality.