Tag: Neal McCluskey

Why Are Conservatives Incoherent on Federal Education?

For a nice overview of the counterproductive incoherence of Republican education efforts over the decades, check out this piece by Frederick Hess and Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute. And for a sense of how confused conservatives remain when they write pieces telling other conservatives how to have “good” federal education policy, read the same piece. Its history section gives you the first part, and, unfortunately, its other sections give you the rest.

Hess and Kelly – who are generally pretty sharp – furnish a terrific overview of what happens when you talk “local control” of government schools and decry federal micromanaging, but can’t stop yourself from spending federal money and love ”standards and accountability.” Basically, you get a great big refuse heap of squandered money, red tape, educational stagnation, and political failure.

Having laid all that out pretty nicely, you’d think that Hess and Kelly would reach the logical conclusion: Conservatives should obey the Constitution and get Washington out of education. But they don’t. Instead they give precious little thought to the Constitution, and make policy prescriptions that fundamentally ignore that government tends to work for the people we’d have it control. You know, concentrated benefits, diffuse costs; iron triangles – basically, the big problems Hess and Kelly decry at state and local levels.

Start with their constitutional argument (such as it is):

The federal government does have a legitimate role to play in schooling — and it always has. From the Land Ordinance of 1785, which set aside land for the purpose of building and funding schools, through Dwight Eisenhower’s 1958 investment in math and science instruction after the launch of Sputnik, the federal government has recognized a compelling national interest in the quality of American education.

Wow! What a sweep of history! What a great many years this covers!

The thing is, most of those years see essentially no federal education activity, and the first year mentioned – 1785 – precedes the Constitution. Why very little activity between 1785 and 1958? Because relatively few people thought the national government had any role to play in governing education. That’s why neither the word “education” nor “school”  (or, for that matter, ”compelling national interest”) is in the Constitution, and even a commission created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that there is no constitutional federal role in education. Washington does have jurisdiction over District of Columbia schools, and a responsibility under the 14th Amendment to prohibit discrimination, but that’s it.

OK, to be fair, it could also be argued that Congress can constitutionally pass education provisions like those in the Land Ordinance. But not because Washington has power over education. No, because as you see in Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution, it has power over territories. Of course, states and districts are not territories, and the 10th Amendment reiterates what is clear from the granting of only specific, enumerated powers to Congress:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

In an effort to deal with the very clear failures of federal education policy – but without the clarity of following the Constitution – Hess and Kelly offer three things they think the Feds can and should focus on: transparency, research, and “trust-busting.” However, all three ignore the fundamental political reality that school systems tend to be controlled by their employees because the employees have the most at stake. And what are their incentives? Same as mine and yours: to get compensated as generously as possible and have no one hold them accountable for their performance. The result, of course, has been oodles of money spent without meaningful academic improvement.

Start with transparency. Lauding No Child Left Behind for having improved “citizens’ ability to gauge and compare school quality,”  Hess and Kelly argue that the Feds “should require that states collecting federal school funds measure and report detailed data on school quality and educational costs in a consistent, uniform way.” They caution, however, that Washington shouldn’t prescribe standards or curricula, but should measure “schools’ return on public investment.”

Talk about conflicted! How exactly do Hess and Kelly expect the Feds to both stop short of mandating curriculum and standards, and provide an accepted measure of specific schools’ return on investment? Even if you could thread the needle for a while, it is very hard to imagine Washington not eventually narrowing acceptable measures down to a single curriculum and test so that results could be uniform and distilled into soundbites. And what would likely happen even if the standards started off rigorous and the testing tough? The employees who would ultimately be held accountable would simply move their dumbing-down pressure from state and local levels to the federal level, where policy was now being made.  Nothing would be solved, and there would be huge added problems of a new, monolithic standard that could in no way effectively serve greatly diverse kids, as well as the quashing of competing curricular ideas.

Next we’ve got the research argument, which is predicated on the well-known contention that the incentives for private-sector investment in “basic” scientific research – which doesn’t offer immediate returns – are too weak to provide for optimal amounts. The Feds, therefore, have to step in with oodles of grant money. Hess and Kelly would like to extend that model to education research.

Education, however, is not particle physics, the kind of research we generally imagine as “basic.” The need for major equipment investment is not nearly as great for education, nor are the likely benefits of, say, studying the effects of flash cards as far distant as the industrial applications of string theory. Moreover, if we had broad school choice, with schools able to seek profit without penalty, educators would have every reason to invest in research and find better, more efficient ways to teach kids. Finally, there is good evidence that science funding is just as likely to translate into rent-seeking benefits to the scientists as scientific benefits to the public.

Oh, and the constitutional basis for education research spending? Hess and Kelly don’t even try to offer one.

Finally, we have “trust-busting.” Here even Hess and Kelly’s examples illustrate how mistaken their ideas are. While sensibly calling for a reduction in calcifying federal rules and regulations, Hess and Kelly also argue that the Feds should be able to set up “private” entities to compete with the public-school monopoly. They cite as an example the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, which provides a teacher preparation and certification process separate from those established by states. They also note that ABCTE has been “generally neglected.” Which is probably a good thing. After all, think of two other “private” federal creations: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Seems there can be big problems when Washington creates supposedly private entities.

Then there’s this: “A related role for federal lawmakers is to help lift the burden of bad past decisions and troubling policy legacies that hinder reform-minded state and local leaders.” Hess and Kelly argue that Washington should create a form of bankruptcy that lets states and districts render null and void labor contracts and other obligations that make it hard for them to do business. And what example do they use of organizations that have been crippled by “legacy” contracts? General Motors and Chrysler.

Of course, thanks to the federal government, GM and Chrysler didn’t go through normal bankruptcy, did they? No, they went through processes jury-rigged to favor politically important special interests. That lesson should be screaming at Hess and Kelly: Give Washington power over something and they won’t use it for the common good. They will use it to reward the politically powerful, the very state and local problem Hess and Kelly are trying to solve!

The simple reality is that the federal government is no less subject to special-interest control – the ultimate result of the basic political problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs – than state and local governments. Except, that is, that Washington is even more distant from the people than state and local governments, and if people don’t like their state or local schools they can at least move.

There is, really, only one solution to the basic government problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, and we do no one any favors by denying it: We need to end government control of education.  We need a free market, in which educators are free to teach as they see fit and are held accountable by having to earn the business of paying customers.

The federal role in getting to this, thankfully, is simpler than what must be done at state levels, where constitutional authority over education actually exists. All that Washington has to do is obey the Constitution and get out of education. And yes, Rick and Andrew, that is what the Constitution requires.

Squandering Assessment Test

Yesterday the annual summary of SAT—formerly Scholastic Aptitude Test—scores came out, and the news was once again disheartening. Indeed, average reading scores hit a record low, and math remained stagnant. Writing scores also dipped, but that part of the test has only existed since 2006.

There are important provisos that go with drawing conclusions about the nation’s education system using the SAT. Most notably, who takes it is largely self-selected, and growing numbers of people sitting for it—some of whom might not have bothered in the past—could lower scores without indicating the system is getting worse. That said, as the chart below shows, no likely amount of self-selection or changing test-takers can account for the overwhelming lack of correlation between spending and scores. Per-pupil outlays have taken off like a moonshot while scores have either sat on the runway, or even burrowed down a bit.

Sadly, this corresponds to the results from long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress exams—which are nationally representative—for 17-year-olds. Again, as the following chart reveals, spending has skyrocketed while scores have, um, decidedly not skyrocketed.

There are factors that make comparing year-to-year SAT scores imprecise. But the trend clearly reinforces what we should already know: we get almost no return for our education “investment.”

Hooray for the Rankings!

The following is cross-posted from SeeThruEdu.com, a new blog analyzing higher education:

Heaven knows there are oodles of problems with American higher education – and you’ll get them all thoroughly dissected, diagnosed, and wellness plans delivered at SeeThruEdu – but I want to start my blogging here on a positive note. At least, a relatively positive note: American higher education is way closer to a free market than our moribund elementary and secondary system, and there’s no better sign of that than the oft-maligned U.S. News and World Report college rankings released last week.

Just like higher education generally, the U.S. News rankings have huge problems. Heck, Emory University admitted to having sent inflated SAT and ACT scores, as well as class ranks, to the publication for years. As a result, in the latest rankings Emory moved…not one bit. The school stayed as number 20 among “national universities,” and U.S. News apparently just accepted the data Emory submitted this time based on the school having “confirmed” them. More broadly, the rankings are based far more on inputs such as endowment funds, and dubious academic reputation surveys, than measures of what students actually learn.

But the good news isn’t the perfection of the U.S. News rankings. It’s what their very existence signifies: Higher ed consumers have real power, and institutions are sufficiently independent that they can both compete with one another and specialize in the needs of different students. It’s why not only do the U.S. News rankings exist, they are essentially the magazine’s flagship publication.

And college rankings are hardly restricted to U.S. News. Countless rankings and reviews are out there, giving prospective students and their parents myriad ways to slice and dice their options. No doubt the best of these – because of who’s in charge of them – comes from fellow SeeThruEdu blogger, and higher ed gadfly extraordinaire, Richard Vedder, whose Forbes.com rankings assess schools using alumni success and costs. The Princeton Review will tell you where students have their noses most to the grindstone, or most obscured by beer-filled Solo cups. And the Associated Press just profiled two new entrants, one which ranks schools based on “revealed preference” – which schools students choose when accepted to multiple institutions – and one based on alumni satisfaction. And there are many, many more!

Unfortunately, part of the reason rankings are in such incredible abundance is that there is way too much consumer power in higher ed, if by power we mean money. Basically, students can demand all sorts of extravagant things (I need my massages and water park!) because third-parties –  most notably the federal government – give them wads of cash to do so. Indeed, higher education is massively inefficient as a result of humongous subsidies both directly to schools and to students. But that will be the subject of many, far less giddy posts from me in the future. For now, a bit of a happy note: Hooray for the college rankings! Things in higher education could actually be worse!

Don’t Rush Me, Kid, I’m Striking!

In case you weren’t sure whether the teachers union in Chicago – where the strike continues despite widespread agreement last week that kids would be in school today – is really fighting for “the children,” here’s all the quote you need:

“Our members are not happy,” CTU President Karen Lewis said, according to the Associated Press. “They want to know if there is anything more they can get. They feel rushed.”

I mean, what’s the hurry? It’s not the union’s education!

Marketplace Map Gives Half the Story

Last week, American Public Media’s Marketplace posted an interactive map—attached to a much-appreciated interview with me—enabling users to see how much states spent per public-college student in 2011, and how that had changed over the the last twenty-five years. It cites as its sources the State Higher Education Executive Officers and me. Unfortunately, it gives only half of the story I was trying to relate with my crunching of SHEEO’s data: per-pupil state and local spending has generally been on a downward trend, but that does not come close to fully explaining rising prices.

To get the full breakdown of the data you can access my calculations here. Note, though—as I wrote in the blog post to which my crunching was originally attached—I didn’t put the spreadsheet together for widespread dissemination, at least not to appear authoritative. I think it’s on target, but I didn’t triple-check it as I would have a more formal data analysis. More importantly, the key point is that while most states have seen decreasing per-pupil allocation trends—primarily because of very large enrollment spurts—they have much more than made up for those losses through tuition increases, bringing in roughly two dollars for every dollar lost. Taxpayers aren’t cheap— colleges are greedy.

Democrats’ Problem: Teachers and Their Unions Just Like the Rest of Us

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.

Obama Proposes an Education Employee Bailout. How Novel!

Over the weekend, the White House released a “new” report explaining why President Obama thinks the Feds need to spend – er, “invest” – $25 billion on public school staffing. Since July 2009 “the economy lost over 300,000 local education jobs.”

Where have we heard this before?

Of course! We’ve been down this road many times, and the President did get a tidy $10 billion bailout on top of the original “stimulus” – with its roughly $100 billion for education – as a result. Why not try again?

For the same reason he should never have tried: While no one likes to see someone lose a job, the fact of the matter is we’ve seen decades of public-school hiring and spending binges, ultimately without even close to commensurate achievement gains to show for them. Between 1969-70 and Fall 2009 pupil-to-staff ratios dropped from 13.6-to-1 to 7.8-to-1 – a huge staffing increase. Pupil-to-teacher ratios dropped from 22.6-to-1 to 15.4-to-1. Meanwhile, National Assessment of Educational Progress scores for 17-year-olds – our schools “final products” – were almost completely stagnant. And that 300,000 figure? It seems like a lot, but in 2010 there were almost 6.2 million local, public K-12 employees.  That’s a less than 5 percent trimming.

In addition to the dearth of evidence that more hiring will do appreciable good, there are two other big problems. The first is that $25 billion is a lot of money that we simply don’t have. Anyone notice the national debt is about to surpass $16 trillion? And the second: The federal government has no constitutional authority to waste our dough in the name of education.

Frankly, this bailout idea is really stale, and we at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom are getting a little tired of ripping it to shreds. But as long as people continue to believe that public schools have no money, and that someone else (hint: “the rich”) will pay the bills, we’ll constantly be offered such reality-be-darned proposals.