July 10, 2012 1:13PM

Teachers Unions Are But a Symptom of the Disease

Just as some public schooling defenders like to caricature their opponents as self-important, money-grubbing "corporate reformers" or malevolent destroyers of "public education," there is a tendency on the other side to attack teachers unions as the root of all evil. They aren't. They are a natural symptom of a government monopoly that, because it is a monopoly, strongly favors the monopolization of labor. One employer, one employee representative.

Unless someone has compelling evidence to the contrary---I've never seen any---teacher union officials and members are no different than anyone else: they are simply trying to get the best deals for themselves.  What separates them from non-unionized workers---and unionized workers in the private sector---is not their desires, but that their employment comes from a system into which "customers" must pay, and which is controlled completely by politics. Public-sector unions have big advantages in politics, where organization, numbers, and motivation---millions of people advocating for their very livelihoods---translate into power.

That brings us to today's Wall Street Journal piece on union political spending. That spending is huge, and manifested in far more ways than contributions to candidates. Between 2005 and 2011 the Journal estimates unions spent $3.3 billion on political activities, which beyond candidate donations included everything from trying to persuade members to vote a certain way, to supplying bratwursts to demonstrators in Wisconsin.

There would be no major freedom issue if all of this were spending by unions with completely voluntary membership, and which operated in truly free markets. There would, then, be no compelled support of politicking. But this is absolutely not the case when it comes to teachers unions and other public sector unions.

For one thing, teachers often are, for all intents and purposes, forced to join unions as a condition of employment, even when they are required to "just" pay big "agency fees" to cover collective bargaining. Moreover, the ultimately taxpayer-supplied dues money is used to get more dough out of taxpayers who have no choice but to be schools' "customers." And we're not talking pocket change here: according to the Journal's numbers, between 2005 and 2011 the National Education Association spent $239 million on politics and lobbying, and the American Federation of Teachers spent $138 million. And that doesn't include the outlays of all their state and local affiliates.

Despite those power-wielding expenditures, the members and leaders of teachers unions still aren't evil. They are normal, self-interested folks. The effects of their actions, however, are to compel people to fund political speech and activities against their will, and often against their personal interests. But we shouldn't attack unions for that. We must attack the government schooling monopoly.

July 6, 2012 11:08AM

It’s All Your Fault, Fickle Friends of the Constitution

There's an interesting convergence in the news this morning, with Kimberley Strassel in the Wall Street Journal and an article in the New York Times tackling President Obama's trampling of the separation of powers. Strassel is dubbing Obama's an "imperial presidency," and while the Times offers a straight news piece about No Child Left Behind waivers, it too features a strong whiff of presidential imperialism:

Congress has tried and failed repeatedly to reauthorize the education law over the past five years because Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on an appropriate role for the federal government in education. And so, in the heat of an election year, the Obama administration has maneuvered around Congress, using the waivers to advance its own education agenda.

It's easy and fun, of course, to cry imperialism when it's the other guy's party in power, and as Strassel points out many on the left employed such condemnation---not without cause---against George W. Bush.  But that's precisely the problem: Liberals and conservatives both shunt aside the Constitution when it serves their purposes, but act shocked---shocked!---when the feds or the president employ unconstitutional power to do things they don't like.

Well guess what, fickle friends of the Constitution: You all righteously shut down the containment unit. You're all at fault for the demons running rampant.

There's no better example of this than education, an area over which no federal authority exists yet politicians of both parties have "helped the children" whenever they've felt they could get what they wanted. A heavily Democratic Congress and White House gave us the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act---liberals love spending money on schools---and conservatives decried the wasting of taxpayer dough. With NCLB, a largely Republican Congress and White House  escalated federal control---conservatives love being seen as tough guys who impose "accountability"---and many on the left became apoplectic.  Now President Obama is handing out NCLB waivers contingent on states adopting his favored reforms, and many on the right are rhetorical constitutionalists again.

Here's the lesson: The next time the guy you despise does something you don't like, remember when you've looked the other way as the Constitution was shoved in a drawer, or torn up, in pursuit of what you wanted. Remember, and heap blame on yourself, because it is your fault.

For more, click here:

June 27, 2012 10:21AM

Want a Disproven Belief? Government Schools Teach Good Science

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Much is being made by school choice opponents of a report that a Christian school in Louisiana eligible to receive students in the state's new voucher program uses a textbook that asserts the Loch Ness Monster is real and a dinosaur. Writes Washington Post education columnist Valerie Strauss:

This is where support of vouchers is leading us — to the public paying for a child to learn that the Loch Ness Monster was a dinosaur and co-existed with humans. This is important to Young Earth Creationists, who believe that Earth was created no longer than 10,000 years ago, not the 4.5 billion years estimated by science. They also believe that dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark.

If people want to believe this and they want their children to learn it in school, that’s fine. The public shouldn’t have to pay for it.

I can certainly see why paying for this sort of thing would disturb a lot of people -- it's a major reason tax-credit programs, which let individuals and corporations choose to whom they will donate, are preferable to vouchers. Let's, however, use this to confront another, extremely dubious belief that many would never challenge:  Government schooling leads to good science instruction.

First, no matter how loudly government-failure deniers might protest -- the government is omnipotent, dammit! -- government schooling does not overcome religious belief. The latest Gallup poll assessing views on human origins came out a few weeks ago, and found as it has since 1982: The vast majority of Americans believe that God created human beings, and a plurality believes that God created us in our "present form." Only 15 percent hold that human beings evolved without any divine involvement. And this is with roughly 85 percent of students attending public schools.

Next, take a look at overall science achievement. According to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress results, only 32 percent of U.S. eighth graders are "proficient" in science. And private versus public schools? 43 percent of private school students are proficient, versus 31 percent for public schools. A significant part of the difference is likely that private schools tend to serve better prepared kids, but the data certainly doesn't suggest that public schooling beats private when it comes to science instruction.

Finally, there's the reason government schools are so inept at teaching science: All people, no matter what their beliefs, are forced to support public schools -- a perfect recipe for wrenching conflict. To avoid war without end, some 60 percent of high school biology teachers gloss over the mega flash-point that is evolution. The result is that no one, no matter what their beliefs, gets coherent biology instruction.

The solution to this is obvious: Let the people go! Let them freely choose what their children will learn, eliminating the need to fight. No longer force them to pay for "free" government schools, then pay again for education they like.

Unfortunately, all too often the self-proclaimed logic-driven defenders of science reject this argument. In part this is because of their heart-felt conviction that all children must learn proper science. That, however, has shackled them to the utterly illogical belief that some way, somehow, human and government reality will be magically overcome.

That's more than just a little ironic.

June 25, 2012 11:04AM

Did My Student Loan Rate Rise? I Barely Noticed

We should all be so lucky as to have our crises be like the looming interest rate change on some student loans. Yes, the rate on subsidized federal loans will double on July 1 absent congressional action, but that needs to be put into context to see that it's a potential "crisis" -- as I heard it described on a radio news report last Friday -- akin to your yacht sinking. Your toy, bathtub yacht.

Starting July 1, rates on subsidized loans -- a subset of federal loans in which taxpayers eat beginning interest payments as well as bearing non-repayment risk -- are set to rise from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.

That might sound bad, but note that the rates have only been at 3.4 percent for a year. A 2007 law set them on a gradual decline from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent over five years. So it's not like 3.4 percent has been the norm for decades...or even two years.

Next, the rate increase will only affect loans originated after July 1. People with existing loans won't suddenly see the rates on all their subsidized loans double.

Third, while a rate doubling sounds big, the practical effect according to the White House's own calculations will be to add about $1,000 to an average loan over its lifetime, which is about ten years. That translates into an additional $8.33 per month -- less than the cost of a DC movie ticket.

Finally, freezing the rate for another year will do almost nothing for currently suffering middle-class families, unlike what the White House intimated in President Obama's most recent weekly address. The large majority of loans originated after July 1 won't even begin to be repaid for at least another year-and-a-half, after rising seniors have graduated and gone through the six-month repayment grace period.

It's well known that a crisis is extremely useful for affecting political change -- just ask Chicago's mayor -- but it often translates into bad policy. And that's exactly the kind of policy that creating artificially cheap student loans is. They help fuel skyrocketing college prices, subsidize massive college waste, and contribute to millions of people enrolling who either never complete their studies or who finish largely worthless degrees.

All those consequences are problems that Washington really should worry about. But that's the other thing about a crisis: It's usually only embraced when it means giving stuff away to buy lots of votes.

June 7, 2012 4:42PM

Don’t Pop That Champagne Yet



 With its 40th birthday coming on June 23rd, we'll likely be hearing more and more plaudits for Title IX, the federal law banning gender discrimination in federally funded education activities. But it is hardly clear that the law was either necessary, or beneficial.

It’s certainly not an open-and-shut case, for instance, that Title IX broke open lots of opportunities in higher education that wouldn't otherwise have existed -- yet been in demand -- for women. A quick look at women's percentage of total college enrollment shows that females were gaining classroom seats at a big clip well before 1972. According to federal data, between 1947 and 1972 women's share of total enrollment was growing at a pace of 0.56 percentage points per year, rising from 29.0 percent to 43.1 percent. From 1972 until 2010, in contrast, the growth was only 0.37 percentage points per year, hitting 57.0 percent in 2010.

Those figures don't prove, of course, that there was and is no discrimination against women in higher education. They do, however, show that women were moving headlong into college well before Title IX, and today are so much larger a percentage of total enrollees than men that most colleges would be in serious jeopardy were they to deny them things they want. It also suggests that cultural acceptance of women in college and other new roles was changing well before the law was passed, and cultural evolution has probably had a lot more to do with new opportunities opening for women than Title IX.

There are many other powerful arguments to be made against Title IX -- the strange preoccupation with sports opens up a slew of them all by itself -- but also potent points to be made in its favor. That’s why on June 20th Cato will be hosting a lively debate on the law with both pro- and anti-Title IX speakers. You can register to attend here, or follow the debate online.

It might be Title IX’s birthday, but one of its presents should not be an absence of tough, fair scrutiny.

C/P from the National Journal‘s “Education Experts” blog.

June 1, 2012 5:01PM

These Reports Prove Aid Doesn’t Fuel Tuition Inflation…Except They Don’t

Today we are once again treated to a declaration that there is simply no way the crazy Bennett Hypothesis -- the theory that student aid helps fuel college price inflation -- is true. This time, the end-all-debate pronouncement comes from David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, who cites three apparently definitive reports as proving aid is not "driving up" costs.

Aside from the problem that the argument is really that aid fuels price increases rather than driving them -- the aid is the gasoline, the colleges the car drivers -- what do the studies offered by Warren really tell us?

First is the 2001 federal report everyone who wants to declare the Bennett Hypothesis dead loves to cite: "Study of College Costs and Prices, 1988-89 to 1997-98," from the National Center for Educational Statistics. As Warren accurately cites, the report does say:

Regarding the relation between financial aid and tuition, the regression models found no associations between most of the aid packaging variables (federal grants, state grants, and loans) and changes in tuition in either the public or private not-for-profit sectors.

But, then, it also says this:

[T]here are considerable data limitations in these models: for example, the availability of only one year of financial aid data and a lack of comparably recent financial data (especially for private not-for-profit institutions). IPSFA data on loans include all sources of student loans; federal subsidizedand unsubsidized, institutional, and private loans cannot be disaggregated. In addition, the IPSFA aid variables focus on the packaging of various forms of student aid in terms of the percentage of students receiving aid and the average amount received, and therefore cannot be used to explore the possibility of a revenue interaction at the institutional level between federal aid and institutional aid. Due in large part to the accounting standards used by the institutions themselves, information on financial aid collected through the IPEDS system for the available years is incomplete, especially regarding student loan volume, which cannot be isolated from tuition revenue in the IPEDS Finance survey data. Finally, financial data such as instruction expenditures cannot be isolated to undergraduate students, making any comparison with undergraduate tuition inexact.

Essentially, the report contains a regression based on a change in student aid for just one year and can't adjust for a whole bunch of important things. In other words, it tells us little and in no way closes the door on Bennett.

Next, Dr. Warren cites a February 1998 commission report in which the commission purports not to have found any evidence that student grants effect college prices, and no "conclusive" evidence that loans enable rising prices. Then again, the Commission did no meaningful empirical analysis of the question, and as dissenting member Francis McMurray Norris objected, "issues such as tenure, cost and value of research, duplication of facilities, teaching loads, and relationship of student loan programs and rising costs have not been addressed." [Italics added]

Grounds for putting the Bennett Hypothesis in a pine box? Hardly.

Finally, Dr. Warren cites a 2011 GAO report that looked only at the effect of an increase in the federal student loan limit for first- and second-year students, and only tracked three years of prices and enrollment. It concluded that enrollment and prices rose at rates generally consistent with recent "prior years." Of course, looking at the effect of such a narrow change in overall aid over such a short time period without controlling for myriad variables that impact prices tells us basically bupkis.

The fact is that several empirical studies do show student aid enabling schools to raise their prices, and I have listed many of them. It is also the case, as most studies point out, that it is very difficult to definitively isolate the effects of aid when so many factors -- from school type to student characteristics -- are in play. That's when basic logic also has to come in: People in colleges are like everyone else, and will be happy to take more money if it's available. Aid makes it available.

One thing that cannot be supported is insisting, as Mr. Warren does, that we know for certain there is no connection between student aid and rising prices. That is something that truly has been disproven.

May 23, 2012 10:50AM

Gov. Romney, Federal ‘Incentives’ Mean Federal Power

In a speech today, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney will lay out the foundations of his education platform. Based on an outline of his proposals released by Education Week this morning, Gov. Romney seems just a little less disinterested in the Constitution -- and the 40-plus years of proven federal education failure -- than the man he seeks to replace. And no, calling what you want federal "incentives" neither absolves them of being unacceptable federal intrusions, nor makes them any less coercive.

The heart of what Mr. Romney wants in elementary and secondary education is federal enticements to get states to implement everything from "open-enrollment" policies for schools, to individual school "report cards," to encouraging "talented individuals to become teachers."

As I wrote last week, while "incentive" sounds kinda harmless, an incentive program is really all that No Child Left Behind is. No state has to do anything in NCLB. It only has to follow the law if it wants the federal money attached to it. The funding is only an incentive, but it is so big an incentive it is irresistible, even with the law being a huge millstone around the neck of American education. And, of course, taxpayers had no choice about furnishing the ducats to begin with. (Well, I suppose they were incentivized by a trip to prison...)

Where Romney's K-12 offering is most enticing is his proposal that federal money be attached to low-income and special-needs children and made portable even to private schools. (Portable, that is, "in accordance with state guidelines," a proviso the outline doesn't flesh out.) But the very real threat, as with all federal funding , is federal control. What Washington funds it will regulate -- though usually for political show, not efficiency or effectiveness -- and that is something we should strenuously avoid for  private schools when states can implement more varied -- and less regulation prone -- choice mechanisms such as education tax credits. And, of course, the Constitution gives the federal government no more authority to deliver school choice than to dictate curricula. That is, except in Washington itself, and to his credit Mr. Romney is proposing to save the D.C. voucher program that Mr. Obama, for whatever shoddy reason, seems determined to suffocate.

The good news about Gov. Romney's outline is that it directly addresses the primary problem in higher education, and one of its primary causes: insane tuition inflation fueled by massive federal student aid. Indeed, though he will no doubt get flayed for it by the higher ed establishment, who will publically deny it like so many naked emperors, Mr. Romney's outline is refreshingly straightforward in identifying the root problem:

Governor Romney realizes that more spending will not solve the problem of tuition increases – to the contrary, it has helped fuel the problem. When Washington puts more money into student aid programs to help families and individuals pay for higher education, colleges and universities raise tuition rates.

So what grade does Mr. Romney get on education, at least from this initial outline? About a 30 percent for K-12, and a 90 percent for higher ed. That works out to 60 percent -- a woeful D-minus -- but that's probably a tad bit better than most presidents would have gotten since the 1960s.