If you like feeling conflicted, you’ll love being a libertarian thinking about President Obama’s recent proposal – and even more recent rescinding of that proposal – to essentially end 529 college savings plans. The President proposed killing the ability to use funds saved under a 529 plan tax free to pay for college, which would have gutted the program’s real value.
On one side, a libertarian should be aggravated by such a proposal. The goal certainly seemed to be income redistribution, generating new revenues from relatively well‐to‐do Americans and giving it to (presumably) less well‐to‐do Americans with free community college and expanded “refundable” tax credits. It also seemed intended to support a divisive, rhetorical war of the “middle class” vs. “the rich” (though certainly many people who use 529s consider themselves middle class). And unlike federal grants, loans, and those refundable credits that are often essentially grants for people who don’t owe much in taxes, 529s are about people saving their own money to pay for college, not taking it from taxpayers.
On the other side, libertarians – heck, everyone – should want a simple tax code that isn’t riven with special breaks, loopholes, and encouragements to do things politicians decide are worthy but which have massive negative, unintended consequences. And when it comes to higher education, those consequences are huge, including rampant tuition inflation, awful completion rates, major underemployment, serious credential inflation, and a burgeoning academic water park industry. And where does the federal government get the authority to incentivize saving for college in the first place? Not in the Constitution.
So how should libertarians feel about the demise of the President’s 529 plan? I guess a little sad, because the Feds simply shouldn’t be in the business of encouraging college consumption. Even more, though, they should feel angry, because we are so deep in a federally driven, college‐funding quagmire.
When I first heard about the White House Summit on Early Education being held today, I worried. “I sure hope this isn’t going to be a PR stunt to cheerlead for government pre‐kindergarten programs,” I thought. Then I got the announcement: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be having a Twitter chat with pop sensation Shakira in conjunction with the summit! “Oh, I was just being silly,” I said to myself, relieved that this would be a sober, objective discussion about what we do – and do not – know about the effectiveness of pre‑K programs.
Okay, that’s not actually what happened. In fairness to Shakira, she does appear to have a very serious interest in children’s well‐being. Unfortunately, the White House does not appear to want to have an objective discussion of early childhood education.
Just look at this, from the official White House blog:
For every dollar we invest in early childhood education, we see a rate of return of $7 or more through a reduced need for spending on other services, such as remedial education, grade repetition, and special education, as well as increased productivity and earnings for these kids as adults.
Early education is one of the best investments our country can make. Participation in high‐quality early learning programs — like Head Start, public and private pre‑K, and childcare — provide children from all backgrounds with a strong start and a solid foundation for success in school.
Let me count the ways that this is deceptive, or just plain wrong, as largely documented in David Armor’s recent Policy Analysis The Evidence on Universal Preschool:
- The 7‑to‑1 ROI figure – for which the White House cites no source – almost certainly comes from work done by James Heckman looking at the rate of return for the Perry Preschool program. It may well be accurate, but Perry was a microscopic, hyperintensive program from the 1960s that cannot be generalized to any modern, large‐scale program.
- If you look at the longitudinal, “gold‐standard” research results for Head Start, you see that the modest advantages accrued early on essentially disappear by first grade…as if Head Start never happened. And federal studies released by the Obama administration are what report this.
- It stretches credulity to call Head Start “high quality,” not just based on its results, but on its long history of waste and paralysis. Throughout the 2000s the federal Government Accountability Office and general media reported on huge waste and failure in the program.
- Most evaluations of state‐level pre‑K programs do not randomly assign children to pre‑K and compare outcomes with those not chosen, the “gold standard” mentioned above. Instead they often use “regression discontinuity design” which suffers from several shortcomings, arguably the biggest of which is that you can’t do longitudinal comparisons. In other words, you can’t detect the “fade out” that seems to plague early childhood education programs and render them essentially worthless. One large‐scale state program that was evaluated using random‐assignment – Tennessee’s – appears to be ineffective.
- The White House says early childhood programs can help “children from all backgrounds.” Not only is that not true if benefits fade to nothing, but a federal, random‐assignment evaluation of the Early Head Start program found that it had negative effects on the most at‐risk children.
I suspect the vast majority of people behind expanding preschool are well intentioned, and I encourage them to leverage as much private and philanthropic funding as they can to explore different approaches to pre‑K and see what might work. But a splashy event intended to proclaim something is true for which we just don’t have good evidence doesn’t help anyone.
Let’s not mislead taxpayers…or kids.
National Review Online is in the midst of its “education week” – including offerings by yours truly and Jason Bedrick – and today brings us a piece by AEI’s Andrew Kelly on how to fix our higher ed system. Unfortunately, while he largely nails the problems, he stumbles on the solution.
Kelly is absolutely right when he criticizes the Obama administration for demonizing for-profit colleges – see my piece for the evidence that for-profits are not the problem – while simultaneously observing how odd it is for conservatives to decry as some great violation of free-market ideals attacks on institutions that get the vast majority of their funds through Washington. He is also right that the entire ivory tower is awash in waste and failure, and all institutions – for-profit or putatively not-for-profit – are self-interested money-grubbers. Finally, he correctly notes that it is a big problem that by far the largest student lender is the Bank of Uncle Sam, who basically gives to anyone who can breathe.
Where Kelly starts to get into trouble is in suggesting that a lot of these troubles could be meaningfully mitigated if we just had the right data readily available to consumers. He writes, “Basic pieces of information needed to make a sound investment — out-of-pocket costs, the proportion of students who graduate on time, the share who earn enough to pay back their loans after graduation — are either incomplete or nonexistent.”
This morning, former Reagan administration education secretary Bill Bennett took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to make the “conservative” case for the Common Core. In that effort, he actually made a great case for Core opponents, illustrating the contradictions of the Core while furnishing several examples of all‐too‐frequent Core spin. And he did it, ironically, while implying that Core opponents have “badly and sometimes mischievously muddled” the Core story.
To lay all of this out I’ll provide some quotes, then either respond to them with my own information, or with another, largely contradictory, quote from Bennett’s piece. Let’s begin:
First, we can all agree that there is a need for common standards of assessment in K‑12 education.
We can? What’s the evidence for that? Bennett offers none, and even loaded polling questions find that only about two‐thirds of Americans support generic standards “that are the same across states.” And I, for one, think there need to be competing standards in order to see what works, what works better, and what works for different subsets of the unique individuals we call “children.”
When I was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the 1980s, I asked 250 people across the political spectrum what 10 books every student should be familiar with by the time they finish high school. Almost every person agreed on five vital sources: the Bible, Shakespeare, America’s founding documents, the great American novel “Huckleberry Finn” and classical works of mythology and poetry, like the Iliad and the Odyssey….That’s the fundamental idea behind a core curriculum: preserving and emphasizing what’s essential, in fields like literature and math, to a worthwhile education.
Presumably, the Core includes these readings that almost everyone Bennett polled agreed students should tackle. Right? Um, no:
Why then is Common Core drawing such heavy fire? Some of the criticism is legitimate, but much of it is based on myths. For example, a myth persists that Common Core involves a required reading list. Not so.
Here we see a basic problem for Core supporters: they want the public to believe either that the Core is rich and rigorous, or that it is empty and just a floor, depending, is seems, on whom they are trying to convince to support it. So in one breath they’ll talk about the obvious need for core content, and in the next they’ll protest if anyone says the standards have, well, core content. This may be because there actually is no unanimous agreement on what students should read.
Governors, state education administrators and teachers used these principles as a guide when they developed a set of common standards that were later presented to the country as Common Core. Forty‐five states signed up originally.
Let’s be clear: States adopted the Core, in the vast majority of cases, only after the federal government all but said they had to in order to compete for $4 billion in Race to the Top money. Federal force was further applied by the No Child Left Behind waiver program. And all this occurred in the context of federally driven standards and testing since at least 1994. So, would most states have adopted the Core on their own? We don’t know for sure, but the evidence is heavily stacked against it.
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Critics accused President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan of dangling federal money to encourage states to adopt the Common Core. The administration never should have done this. It made a voluntary agreement among states look like a top‐down directive from the federal government. But remember: The original Common Core standards were separate from the federal government, and they can be separated once again.
Reports are out this morning that Louisiana will be challenging in court federal coercion behind the Common Core standards. If so, it will open a new front in the war against the Core, a standardization effort that has been listing badly in public opinion, but nonetheless survives in the vast majority of states. That could very well change should the force of Race to the Top funding or, more importantly today, waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, be eliminated by the courts, as Core supporters likely knew when they asked for federal pressure.
Does this suit have a chance of success? I’m not a lawyer — though I’ll be consulting a few! — so this is not the best‐informed legal analysis. From what I do know, though, the chances of prevailing are middling, at best. The courts in the past have been pretty lenient in cases in which Washington gets states to do its bidding in exchange for funding when the feds don’t have authority in the Constitution to do something. And the Louisiana suit hinges largely on federal action that seems very intentionally to push the Core – standards “common to a majority of states” under RTTT, and only one other standards option to get a waiver – but that doesn’t state outright that the Core must be adopted. That way the feds can say they aren’t prescribing a specific “program of instruction,” which would clearly violate the letter of several education laws, while in reality very much requiring such a program.
Sadly, one major diversion likely to be employed by Core opponents to battle this suit is impugning Governor Bobby Jindal’s motives. Since Jindal first reversed course on the Core, supporters of the standards have said his stance is all about presidential aspirations and not about what’s best for kids. Those may well be his motives, I don’t know. But as with all aspects of the Core debate, we should focus on the merits of the arguments being employed, not the motives for offering them. (This goes for opponents who attack people like Bill Gates, too.) We should look at the merits of the lawsuit, which requires an honest assessment of both the Constitution and federal education statutes, just as we should look at the research on national standards, the content of the Core, and the reality of how so many states adopted standards that are now heavily disliked.
Do those things, and I think the Core loses hands down. Ignore them completely, and everyone loses.
Defenders of the Common Core national curriculum standards have long employed ridiculing Core opponents as a primary tactic to keep their effort from crumbling. Unlike, say, a circus, the pro‐Core assault hasn’t been very entertaining or funny, but it’s been there. Now, though, the humor tide may be turning, with actual funny people – professional comedians – taking on the Common Core.
A first big laugh attack was launched a few weeks ago, when David‐Letterman‐in‐waiting Stephen Colbert ripped into bizarre math questions stemming from the Common Core:
Yesterday, another comedian went after the Core. Louis C.K., of the show Louie, tweeted what actually sounded like a kinda serious distress call about his children:
Now, nobody should make policy based on the jibes of comedians, professional or otherwise. But that pop culture is starting to mock the Core is yet another bad sign for the national standards effort, an effort proponents once thought in the bag when, under federal pressure, 45 states quietly signed on to the Core.
Funny thing is, Core stalwarts don’t seem to be laughing anymore.
While almost certainly not intended to do this, yesterday the Council of Chief State School Officers – one of the creators of the Common Core – held a revelatory panel discussion with four state superintendents. Revelatory, because two Core‐supporting state superintendents said pretty much what many Core opponents have long explained: Even if the standards are of outstanding quality, the Core won’t work because “accountability” won’t be rigorously implemented.
Starting around the 30‐minute mark of the event video you can start catching comments from Tennessee Supe Kevin Huffman, and New Mexico’s Hanna Skandera, lamenting past failure to translate high standards into performance, and the abandonment of Common Core testing by teacher unions. Huffmann seems especially shocked and angry that state unions he thought were on board with the Core and all its attendant accountability measures are suddenly fighting tooth and nail against it.
Said Huffmann, whose state is on the brink of delaying Core testing: “Our union leadership, which started out…in support of the standards and the assessments…has quit on the process. And they have come out against the transition to more robust assessments….I find that a shocking deviation from the past.”
Alas, had Huffman and other Core supporters been listening to opponents such as myself, or Jay Greene at the University of Arkansas, they would not have been the least bit shocked by this. For instance, as I wrote in the 2010 report Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards: