Every week, the National Journal's Education Expert blog tackles a different issue, and from hereon out I'll be weighing in on many of them, crossposting at Cato@Liberty. I sent in my first entry today, which appears as a "guest response" while they set me up to appear as a regular. It's on my favorite topic -- education and social cohesion -- so hopefully I've started with a bang.
Enjoy, and thanks to the National Journal for bringing a libertarian perspective on board:
Looking at the evidence suggests that school choice is the best educational system to build strong communities. A lot, though, depends on how you define “community.”
Diane Ravitch essentially defines a community as a “neighborhood,” and certainly neighborhoods can be a form of community. But neighborhoods are hardly close to the only type of community, and to the extent that neighborhoods – or, given education reality these days, school districts, states, and the federal government – often include people with very diverse backgrounds, desires, and norms, public schools can be very destructive to social cohesion.
Start with simple logic: If diverse people are required to support a single system of schools, is it more likely to result in unity or conflict? The answer, of course, is conflict. If people cannot agree on what math curriculum to use, they have to fight it out politically. If they cannot agree on whether or not there should be school uniforms, they have to fight that out. Indeed, any disagreement has to be resolved in a political arena, and the term “arena” certainly does not connote cohesion.
We see this forced conflict manifested constantly in education. States and communities are regularly inflamed over the teaching of human origins, whether we’re talking Scopes Monkey or Intelligent Design. We have disputes of which religious groups will get their holidays off from school. And then there’s the ever contentious teaching of U.S. history.
And conflict is only one manifestation of the division caused by trying to bring diverse people under a single government umbrella. Renowned social capital theorist Robert Putnam has found that where there is significant diversity there is also major atomization – people “pull in like a turtle” – quite possibly because they have few recognized, shared norms to hold onto. So not only don’t you have cohesive – but separated – groups, you have seriously compromised intra-group cohesion as well. Communities of all types are weak.
How do you overcome these very real problems through the education system? Let people choose schools – especially private schools – with the money that currently all goes to public schools. Then, not only can you phase out the inherently adversarial system that is public schooling, you can empower people to choose schools based on their shared norms and values.
But won’t this “balkanize” Americans? Maybe, in that many people will choose to attend schools with people like themselves. That, though, is certainly preferable to forcing us at each others’ throats. Moreover, there is evidence that allowing people to choose schools helps to meaningfully overcome serious divisions. Research by Jay Greene and Nicole Mellow, for instance, found that lunch tables – where students sit by true, voluntary choice – at private schools were better integrated by race than those at public institutions. Why? There could be many explanations, but a very reasonable one is that the ties that bind kids at private schools – common religious values, perhaps shared interest in a particular curriculum – help to overcome divisions such as race.
Does more work need to be done to prove that choice is crucial to building communities? Absolutely. Unfortunately, for the most part we haven’t even considered that government schooling might be more divisive than unifying, despite the very real – and painful – evidence that that could indeed be the case. Well, we need to seriously consider the possibility that choice is better mortar for building communities than government schooling because, respect for “neighborhood schools” notwithstanding, the evidence in favor of choice – and against government schooling – is both real and mounting.
...Sparta, New Jersey that is. Like their fellow citizens in 54 percent of school districts across the state, the people of Sparta rejected their local district’s proposed budget yesterday. That’s the highest rate of school budget rejections since 1976, according to the New Jersey Star Ledger. Why? Taxpayers are tired of the relentlessly increasing per-pupil cost of public schooling at a time when their own household budgets are under pressure. It helped that popular new governor Chris Christie recommended that voters reject their districts' budgets unless the teachers unions agreed to a one year salary freeze. [HT: Instapundit]
If this keeps up, voters might just decide to dump the government monopoly approach to schooling in favor of an education system that offers families far more choices while dramatically reducing costs.
The Brookings Institution will release a new school choice policy guide on February 2nd, and from the sound of it, children, parents, taxpayers, and the authors themselves should be concerned. The guide will provide:
a series of practical and novel recommendations for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, including national chartering of virtual education providers; expanding the types of information collected on school performance; providing incentives for low-performing school districts to increase choice and competition; and creating independent school choice portals to aid parents in choosing between schools.
The goals these recommendations are meant to achieve are entirely laudable, but there are three reasons for serious concern:
1) The Constitution delegates to the federal government no power to provide or regulate education services, except in the execution of its explicitly enumerated powers. So the Supreme Court can ensure that state education programs abide by the Fourteenth Amendment, for example, but Congress cannot "charter virtual education providers." Of course the federal government has been transgressing the limits on its education powers for more than half a century, but no one who supports the rule of law can condone that transgression, much less its expansion.
2) From a regulatory standpoint, Washington is the worst level of government at which to implement an education program. National education programs impose a single set of rules on every participating provider in the country. Get those rules wrong -- either up front or down the road -- and you not only hobble the effectiveness of every single provider, but you eliminate the possibility of comparing outcomes between providers operating under different sets of rules. In essence you lose the ability to distinguish between different "treatments" -- to determine what helps and what is harmful to the service's overall success.
3) We have ample evidence about the quality of education programs implemented by the federal government. For example, after 45 years and $166 billion, Head Start has just been proven entirely ineffective. (See also the NCLB paper linked to in "1)", above). Once again, this problem is exacerbated by the all-encompassing nature of federal programs. Get them wrong and you get them wrong for every participating student, everywhere in the country. With variation in programs among states, by contrast, we not only have the ability to compare the merits of alternative approaches, we have powerful incentives for states to get their programs right. Just as tax competition drives businesses from one state or nation to another, so, too, can education policy competition. States with better policies will attract businesses and more mobile residents from states with worse ones, eventually compelling the inferior policy states to redress their errors. We're just beginning to see the prospects for this now, as school choice programs proliferate and grow at the state level, and introducing national programs that might well interfere with this process would be a disastrous mistake.
I hope that school choice advocates, including those who have contributed to the forthcoming Brookings report, will weigh these concerns.
Yesterday, I wrote about President Obama's proposal to extend the Race to the Top program, this time letting school districts completely bypass state governments and apply directly to the feds for funding. I pointed out that the proposal was one among several troubling signs that Obama intends to put Washington fully -- and, of course, unconstitutionally -- in charge of American education. At the time, I didn't realize how right I was.
When I was writing yesterday I was basing my comments on documents from the White House's website and hadn't yet read the details of what went on at the President's photo-op announcing the proposed extension. I sure wish I had: At the dog-and-pony show, the President just came right out and said that he wants to push aside states -- mentioned by name was famous holdout Texas -- that dared to invoke the Constitution and not participate in a program that was, Constitution or no Constitution, supposed to be voluntary.
"Innovative districts like the one in Texas whose reform efforts are being stymied by state decision-makers will soon have the chance to earn funding to help them pursue those reforms," intoned the President.
Fortunately, Texas Governor Rick Perry wasn't about to be cowed: "I will say this very slow so they will understand it in Washington, D.C.: Texas will fight any attempt by the federal government to take over our school system."
So it's pretty certain now, more so even than just 24 hours ago: President Obama wants to federalize American education.
Thankfully, a lot can clearly happen in 24 hours. Yesterday's election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts could very well send shockwaves of fear through the ranks of Democratic (and maybe even Republican) legislators in DC, who might finally get the message that Americans just don't like federal takovers. Heck, perhaps even the President will get the message. If so, then maybe even something as relatively small as a $1.35-billion scalpel designed to cut through states and get right at districts could be seen as too dangerous to handle.
That's speculation, of course, but we should know a lot more in just, oh, the next 24 hours.
I happened to catch the January 7 State of the State speech by Gov. Jim Douglas of Vermont on C-SPAN. It was a sober and serious presentation that laid out the facts about higher taxes and excessive spending, which are problems in just about every state.
Douglas on excessive education staffing Vermont:
Since 1997, school staffing levels have increased by 23 percent, while our student population has decreased by 11.5 percent. The number of teacher’s aides has gone up 43 percent. The number of support staff has gone up 48 percent. For every four fewer students a new teacher, teacher’s aide or staff person was hired. There are 11 students for every teacher – the lowest ratio in the country – and a staggering five students for every adult in our schools. With personnel costs accounting for 80 percent of total school spending, it’s no wonder that our K-12 system is among the most expensive in the nation at $14,000 per student per year.
Current staffing and compensation levels cannot be maintained as the student count continues to decline. If we simply move from our current 11 to 1 student/teacher ratio to 13 to 1, we would still have one of the lowest ratios in the country, while saving as much as $100 million. If we want to make education costs sustainable, we must return balance to classrooms. I propose that over four years we bring our statewide student/teacher ratio to affordable levels.
Douglas on excessive education bureaucracy:
Our school governance structures are a vestige of the 19th century and, like our unsustainable personnel costs, must be reformed. We have 290 separate school districts –- one for every 312 students –- 63 different supervisory bodies and a State Board of Education. That’s a total of 354 different education governing bodies for a state with only 251 towns.
Douglas on education financing:
At the root of our education funding challenge is a system that’s substantially eroding local control. Each year the connection between your school budget vote and your property tax bill becomes more and more distant. . . our education funding regime has grown into an unmanageable maze of exemptions, deductions, prebates, rebates, cost-shifts and hidden funding sources. Overlapping rings of complexity keep all but a few experts from understanding the many moving pieces. This is not good tax policy, not good government, and, if you ask most Vermonters, not good for much of anything. It’s time to pull back the curtains and let the sun shine in on how education is funded. Transparency – Who is paying? What are we paying for? What are the results?
Douglas on excessive education regulations:
Currently, Vermont schools are prohibited by law from accessing out-of-state distance learning programs ... If a school sought to provide a new Chinese program for this student, or even a group of students, they would have to hire a new teacher with the expertise – a costly step. Allowing students to access approved distance learning programs from around the country is a simple, affordable change we can make to improve quality.
Excessive staffing, complex bureaucracy, complex financing, and excessive regulation are problems in government education systems across the country. There is no better time than today, when states have large budget gaps, to tackle these chronic problems.
So kudos to Douglas. His speech was a contrast to that of Colorado's Gov. Bill Ritter, who followed him on C-SPAN uttering the usual lofty but vacuous speech we expect of most politicians.
I’m wrapping up a paper on the real cost of public education, the total price tag per student, not just the stripped down version they typically trot out to show voters. One of the districts is Arlington, VA, which is the one I happen to live in.
Though the district is an unusually big spender, their most recent budget, for fiscal year 2010, contains hand-wringing typical for school districts across the country. “FY 2010 will present unique challenges and hardships for staff, however as stated earlier, these reductions are taken so that there is minimal impact on classroom instruction.”
Arlington is planning to spend over $23,000 per student this year according to the Washington Area Boards of Education (WABE). That’s a 33 percent increase in constant dollars since 2000.*
And yet the county is still talking about tax increases to cover the expected $80-$100 million shortfall the county expects next year.
Here’s a great alternative; fund the schools at 2000 levels and we’re left with an extra $108 million. Voila, no tax increases!
* The WABE listed per-pupil figure leaves out some k-12 spending and provides a number that is significantly less than that in more comprehensive, but older, state records or that can be compiled from district budgets, so I’ve divided the total expenditures listed on p.23 by the enrollment to get real total per-pupil spending.
Yesterday, I offered the Fordham Foundation's Andy Smarick an answer to a burning question: What is the proper federal role in education? It was a question prompted by repeatedly mixed signals coming from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about whether Washington will be a tough guy, coddler, or something in between when it comes to dealing with states and school districts. And what was my answer? The proper federal role is no role, because the Constitution gives the feds no authority over American education.
Not surprisingly, Smarick isn't going for that. Unfortunately, his reasoning confirms my suspicions: Rather than offering a defense based even slightly on what the Constitution says, Smarick essentially asserts that the supreme law of the land is irrelevant because it would lead to tough reforms and, I infer, the elimination of some federal efforts he might like.
While acknowledging that mine is a "defensible argument," Smarick writes that he disagrees with it because it "would presumably require immediately getting rid of IDEA, Title I, IES, NAEP, and much more." He goes on to assert that I might "argue that doing so is necessary and proper because it’s the only path that squares with our founding document, but policy-wise it is certainly implausible any time soon." Not far after that, Smarick pushes my argument aside and addresses a question to "those who believe that it’s within the federal government’s authority to do something in the realm of schools."
OK. Let's play on Smarick's grounds. Let's ignore what the Constitution says and see what, realistically, we could expect to do about federal intervention in education, as well as what we can realistically expect from continued federal involvement.
First off, I fully admit that getting Washington back within constitutional bounds will be tough. That said, I mapped out a path for doing so in the last chapter of Feds In The Classroom, a path that doesn't, unlike what Smarick suggests, require immediate cessation of all federal education activities. Washington obviously couldn't be pulled completely out of the schools overnight.
Perhaps more to Smarick's point, cutting the feds back down to size has hardly been a legislatively dead issue. Indeed, as recently as 2007 two pieces of legislation that would have considerably withdrawn federal tentacles from education -- the A-PLUS and LEARN acts -- were introduced in Congress. They weren't enacted, but they show that getting the feds out of education is hardly a pipe dream. And with tea parties, the summer of townhall discontent, and other recent signs of revolt against big government, it's hardly out of the question that people will eventually demand that the feds get out of their schools.
Of course, there is the other side of the realism argument: How realistic is it to think that the federal government can be made into a force for good in education? It certainly hasn't been one so far. Just look at the following chart plotting federal education spending against achievement, a chart that should be very familiar by now.
Notice anything? Of course! The federal government has spent monstrous sums on education without any corresponding improvement in outcomes!
Frankly, it's no mystery why: Politicians, as self-interested people, care first and foremost about the next election, not long-term education outcomes. They care about what will score them immediate political points. That's why federal politicians have thrown ever-more money at Title I without any meaningful sign it makes a difference. That's why No Child Left Behind imposed rules that made Washington politicians look tough on bad schools while really just pushing more dough at educrats and giving states umpteen ways to avoid actual improvement. That's why Arne Duncan vacillates between baddy and buddy at the drop of a headline. And that basic reality -- as well as the reality that the people employed by the public schools will always have the greatest motivation and ability to influence government-schooling policies -- is why it is delusional to expect different results from federal education interventions than what we've gotten for decades.
OK. But what about a law like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)? Hasn't it helped millions of disabled kids who would otherwise have been neglected by states and local school districts?
For one thing, it is constitutional and totally appropriate under the 14th Amendment for the federal government to ensure that states don't discriminate against disabled children in provision of education. IDEA, however, does much more than that, spending billions of federal dollars, promoting over-identification of "disabilities," and creating a hostile, "lawyers playground" of onerous, Byzantine rules and regulations, all without any proof that the law ultimately does more good than harm. And again, this should be no surprise, because federal politicians care most about wearing how much they "care" on their reelection-seeking sleeves, no matter how negative the ultimate consequences may be.
Alright-y then. How about the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)? Isn't it an invaluable source of national performance data?
NAEP results are used in the above chart, so obviously I have found NAEP of some value. But does its usefulness justify ignoring the Constitution? Absolutely not. For one thing, instead of NAEP we could use extant, non-federal tests such as the SAT, ACT, PSAT, Stanford 9, Terra Nova, and many other assessments to gauge how students are doing. And as useful as NAEP may be, it sits perilously close to being as worthless as everything else that Washington has done in education. All that has kept it from being hopelessly politicized is that there is no money attached to how states and local districts do on it. And as Smarick's boss at Fordham, Chester Finn, testified in 2000, even with that protection NAEP and other supposedly netural federal education undertakings are under constant threat of political subversion:
Unfortunately, the past decade has also shown how vulnerable these activities are to all manner of interference, manipulation, political agendas, incompetence and simple mischief. It turns out that they are nowhere near to being adequately immunized against Washington’s three great plagues:
• the pressing political agendas and evanescent policy passions of elected officials (in both executive and legislative branches)and their appointees and aides,
• the depredations and incursions of self-serving interest groups and lobbyists (of which no field has more than education), and
• plain old bureaucratic bungling and incompetence.
Based on all of this evidence, it is clear that the only realistic avenue for getting rational federal education policy is, in fact, to follow the Constitution and have no federal education policy. In other words, the very realistic Framers of the Constitution were absolutely right not to give the federal government any authority over education, and it is time, right now, for us to stop ignoring them. Doing anything else will only ensure continued, bankrupting failure.