I blogged this morning that the research shows higher public school spending slows the economy, and explained that this is because spending more on public schools doesn't increase students' academic performance. Some readers no doubt find that hard to accept. With them in mind, I present the following chart:
Spending vs. Achievement[/caption]
If public schools had merely maintained the level of productivity they exhibited in 1970, Americans would enjoy a permanent $300 billion annual tax cut. Now THAT would stimulate economic growth.
Tomorrow morning, the president's Council of Economic Advisers will release a report assessing the short and long-term effects of the stimulus bill on the U.S. economy. As with previous iterations, this report will attempt to forecast overall effects of the stimulus across its many different components and the different economic sectors it targets. In doing so, it ignores the clearest research findings available pertaining to a key portion of the stimulus: k-12 education.
The president has committed $100 billion in new money to the nation's public school systems, and required that states accepting the funds promise not to reduce their own k-12 spending. The official argument for this measure is that higher school spending will accelerate U.S. economic growth. But a July 2008 study in the Journal of Policy Sciences finds that, to the authors' own surprise, higher spending on public schooling is associated with lower subsequent economic growth. Spending more on public schools hurts the U.S. economy.
How is that possible? There is little debate in academic circles that raising human capital -- improving the skills and knowledge of workers -- boosts productivity. So an obvious interpretation of the JPS study is that raising public school spending must not increase human capital. While this possibility surprised study authors Norman Baldwin and Stephen Borrelli, it is consistent with the data on U.S. educational productivity over the past two generations.
Since 1970, inflation adjusted public school spending has more than doubled. Over the same period, achievement of students at the end of high school has stagnated according to the Department of Education's own long term National Assessment of Educational Progress. Meanwhile, the high school graduation rate has declined by 4 or 5%, according to Nobel laureate economist James Heckman. So the only thing higher public school spending has accomplished is to raise taxes by about $300 billion annually, without improving outcomes.
The fact that more schooling without more learning is not a recipe for economic growth is confirmed by the independent empirical work of economists Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann. Their key finding is that academic achievement, not schooling per se, is what matters to economic growth.
Based on this body of research, the president's decision to pump $100 billion into existing public school systems is likely slowing the U.S. economic recovery.
Glenn Greenwald, author of Cato's much-discussed paper on the success of drug decriminalization in Portugal, writes about cults of presidential personality. He notes that Jay Nordlinger of National Review and other conservatives -- not to mention a few libertarians -- have criticized the Obama administration's plan to broadcast a presidential speech into American schools and push teachers to post Obama quotes in their classrooms and encourage students to talk about how President Obama inspires them.
Greenwald never actually defends the Obama plan. But he does argue that conservatives have short memories when they say that this is something unique. In particular, he reminds us of the notorious Monica Goodling's questions to job candidates at the George W. Bush Department of Justice, such as "[W]hat is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?" And also of White House political aide Sara Taylor, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "I took an oath to the president, and I take that oath very seriously." Committee chairman Patrick Leahy had to ask her, "Did you mean, perhaps, you took an oath to the Constitution?"
Greenwald has a good point. Both the red and blue teams have been far too quick to succumb to a cult of presidential personality. (And really, swooning over Reagan or Obama is sort of understandable. But George W. Bush? You have to wonder if they worked really hard at creating a Bush cult because there wasn't really much there.)
But I do see one difference: The Obama administration is trying to push its president-worship onto 50 million captive schoolchildren (not to mention using the NEA to enlist the nation's artists in promoting Obama and his agenda). Goodling was asking people looking for government jobs why they wanted to "serve George W. Bush." Now, sure, they should want to serve the public interest -- and she was asking these questions to people seeking career legal positions as well as to political appointees. Still, it seems a smaller bit of cultishness than going into every public school.
Gene Healy wrote about cultishness by both Bush and Obama supporters here.
It’s one thing for a president to encourage kids to work hard and stay in school – that’s a reasonable use of the bully pulpit. It’s another thing entirely, however, to have the U.S. Department of Education send detailed instructions to schools nationwide on how to glorify the president and presidency, and prod schools to drive social change. Yet as Andrew Coulson has already begun to discuss, the latter is what President Obama, audaciously, has done.
This is, of course, a very troubling turn of events, giving rise to very legitimate fears of political and social indoctrination even if it turns out that those aren’t at all the President's motives. Perhaps, though, this is also a blessing in disguise. As many liberals and conservatives push for national academic standards and other centralizing education reforms, this situation brilliantly illustrates why government schooling is totally antithetical to a free society, and why the more centralized the power, the greater the danger.
Some background: In anticipation of the president’s planned September 8 address to students nationwide, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent a letter and detailed “classroom activities” with all sorts of alarming buzzwords and guidance to schools across the country. In his letter, Duncan asserts that the work of educators is “critical to…our social progress.” It’s a statement that suggests – as many educators have held and continue to hold – that it is the job of public schools to impose values, often collectivist, on students. Fear that this might be the case is reinforced by suggested classroom activities in the department's guidance for pre-K-6 students that encourage children to make posters setting out “community and country” goals. Perhaps even more frightening is the lesson being pushed that it is important to listen to “the President and other elected officials.” Possibly most distressing of all, though, is guidance that appears explicitly designed to glorify both the presidency and President Obama himself, encouraging schools to prepare for the speech “by reading books about presidents and Barack Obama.” Finally, schools are told to ask students how president Obama will “inspire” them in his speech before he gives it, and how they were inspired after Obama has spoken.
This is very disturbing, making crystal clear the huge dangers that attend government-controlled education. Ultimately, politicians will use power over education for their own ends, something fully at odds with a free society. And this is just the most stark manifestation of the inherent incompatibility of freedom and government education. As I have emphasized constantly since publication of my paper Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict, every day free people are pitted against one another, forced to defend their freedom and basic values because they all have to support a single system of government schools. Evolution vs. creationism. Prayer in – or not in – schools. Books with offensive material in libraries. Decisions over whose history will be taught, and whose won’t. The curtailment of freedom goes on and on when government takes everyone’s money and provides schools with it. And the more we centralize education – the more diverse people we force to support one system of schools – the greater the cost to liberty.
All of which makes one thing obvious: The only system of learning compatible with a truly free society is not one of government domination, but one rooted in educational choice – public education, not schooling – in which the public assures that all people can access education, but parents are free to choose their children’s schools and educators are free to educate how they wish.
For too long we have ignored freedom when it’s come to education, sacrificing liberty for “test scores” or “efficiency.” As a result, we’ve gotten neither good test scores nor efficiency while fomenting constant social conflict and building increasingly dangerous government control over our children and our lives. But hopefully some good will come of this troubling Obama administration initiative, issuing a desperately needed wakeup call to all Americans about the great damage government education can inflict on otherwise free people.