Tag: schools

School Choice Advocates: Beware Washington

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.

Vermont’s Education Spending

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. 

How to Fix County Budget Problems

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.*

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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.

Arne Duncan, Secretary of Wheel Reinvention

The final guidelines for the Administration’s “Race to the Top” education reform program have now been released. It’s a system that stimulates competition between the states to produce results that the customer (Secretary Duncan) wants, using financial incentives. Déjà vu, anyone?

It’s as though Arne Duncan recognizes the merits of free market forces, but rather than faithfully reproducing them in the field of education, he’s decided to give us his own reimagining of them.

Here’s the problem. There are already 25 years of scientific research comparing real free education markets to traditional public school systems. It overwhelmingly finds that markets do a better job of serving families. But we have no evidence at all that Secretary Duncan’s newly invented system will do anyone any good.

So why go to all this trouble to reinvent the wheel, when the Secretary’s own Department of Education has found that an on-going federal private school choice program—which gets much closer to a genuine education marketplace—is raising students’ reading ability by two grade levels after just 3 years of participation?

Another Education Road Sign Screaming “Stop!”

This morning the National Center for Education Statistics released a new report, Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scores: 2005-2007.  What the results make clear (for about the billionth time) is that government control of education has put us on a road straight to failure. Still, many of those who insist on living in denial about constant government failure in education will yet again refuse to acknowledge reality, and will actually point to this report as a reason to go down many more miles of bad road.

According to the report, almost no state has set its “proficiency” levels on par with those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the so-called “Nation’s Report Card.” (Recall that under No Child Left Behind all children are supposed to be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014.) Most, in fact, have set “proficiency” at or below NAEP’s “basic” level. Moreover, while some states that changed their standards between 2005 and 2007 appeared to make them a bit tougher, most did the opposite. Indeed, in eighth grade all seven states that changed their reading assessments lowered their expectations, as did nine of the twelve states that changed their math assessments.

Many education wonks will almost certainly argue that these results demonstrate clearly why we need national curricular standards, such as those being drafted by the Common Core State Standards Initiative. If there were a national definition of “proficiency,” they’ll argue, states couldn’t call donkeys stallions. But not only does the existence of this new report refute their most basic assumption – obviously, we already have a national metric – the report once again screams what we already know:  Politicians and bureaucrats will always do what’s in their best interest – keep standards low and easy to meet – and will do so as long as politics, not parental choice, is how educators are supposed to be held accountable. National standards would only make this root problem worse, centralizing poisonous political control and taking influence even further from the people the schools are supposed to serve. 

Rather than continuing to drive headlong toward national standards – the ultimate destination of the pothole ridden, deadly, government schooling road – we need to exit right now. We need to take education power away from government and give it to parents. Only if we do that will we end hopeless political control of schooling and get on a highway that actually takes us toward excellent education.

Ben Chavis to Charles Murray: “Bring it”

In an exchange I had with Charles Murray earlier this month, he complained that there was no bulletproof scientific research documenting miraculous improvement in student achievement attributable to great schools like those of Ben Chavis.

At the time, that objection was beside my point, which is that there is copious evidence that competitive market education systems yield very substantial (if not “miraculuous”) improvements over the status quo government monopoly. We don’t need miracles to prove that there is a much better way of organizing and funding schools.

But that wasn’t enough for Ben Chavis. He called yesterday to pass along a proposition to Charles: come perform the research yourself. In fact, Ben offered to put Charles up in his own house.

I don’t know if Charles will go for this, but I wish he would (or find a grad student who will). And here’s why: I think Charles is so skeptical of the results of great schools and teachers because he has not come across any mechanism in his studies that could adequately explain those results. But I contend that there is such a mechanism: a school culture so strong and conducive to academic effort that it can overcome the absence of an academically supportive culture in the home.

If you read Jay Mathews’ wonderful book Escalante, or Ben’s Crazy Like a Fox, this becomes immediately clear. The school environment in these rare cases becomes a much more powerful influence on students’ willingness to work and expectations of success than is normally the case. These great schools tap into a fundamental human desire to belong to a team that offers them support and to which they feel an obligation to be supportive in return. It’s the same impulse that leads soldiers to put their lives on the line for their buddies in combat, and that sustains the insane work ethic in high tech startups.

This is one reason why free enterprise education systems excel all others: they offer the greatest freedom and most powerful incentives for excellent schools to replicate their cultures on a grand scale.

NAEP Math Scores, NCLB, and the Federal Government

I’m surprised anyone was surprised by the recent flat-lining of scores on the NAEP 4th grade math test. The rate of improvement in NAEP scores has been declining since No Child Left Behind was passed, and the recent results are consistent with that trend.

But what really amazes me is that so many people think the solution is just to tweak NCLB! The unstated assumption here is that federal policy is a key determinant of educational achievement. That’s rubbish.

We’ve spent $1.8 trillion on hundreds of different federal education programs since 1965, and guess what: at the end of high school, test scores are flat in both reading and math since 1970, and have actually declined slightly in science. (Charted for your viewing pleasure here).

If we’ve proved anything in the past 40 years, it is that federal involvement in education is a staggering waste of money.

Meanwhile, education economists have spent the last several decades finding out what actually does work in education. They’ve compared different kinds of school systems and it turns out that parent-driven, competitive education markets consistently outperform state monopoly school systems like ours. I tabulated the results in a recent peer-reviewed paper and they favor education markets over monopolies by a margin of 15 to 1.

So policymakers who actually care about improving educational outcomes should be spending their time and resources enacting laws that will bring free and competitive education markets within reach of all families. And they should be ignoring the education technocrats who – like Soviet central planners – just want to keep spending other people’s money tweaking their fruitless five year plans.