Tag: student performance

Cash Rewards For Failing Schools, the Lawsuit Way

I see the editorialists of the New York Times have rhapsodically hailed last week’s 3-2 New Jersey Supreme Court opinion striking down the budget-trimming plans of Gov. Chris Christie. As the press reported, the court ordered instead that an extra $500 million in state funds be allocated to some of the state’s poorest-performing school districts – the so-called Abbott districts, named after the three-decade-running New Jersey school finance litigation, Abbott v. Burke.

It’s too bad the editorial said nothing about the report five years ago in which one leading newspaper surveyed the wreckage done by the then-25-year-old litigation, which it called an “ambitious court-ordered social experiment.” (At that point, $35 billion in state tax money had already been lavished on the Abbott districts.) The paper’s reporting made a convincing case that the orders had squandered billions on mismanaged districts that were already far outspending most others in the state and region, as with Asbury Park, which was spending 70 percent more than the typical New Jersey district. Indeed, “the highest-spending districts were making the fewest gains” in student performance. It’s especially unfortunate because the newspaper that reported all this was the New York Times itself.

As I argue at greater length in my new book, school reform lawsuits like Abbott are much more than just vehicles for inefficiency and waste of tax dollars: they’re examples of an alternative method of governance, accomplished through what is sometimes called institutional reform litigation, and quite remote from the channels of lawmaking and appropriations familiar from civics books. Typically, successful litigation of this sort transfers control over an important issue like school funding from branches of government that are accountable to taxpayers and voters to a cluster of private litigators, expert witnesses, special masters, consultants, law professors, backers in liberal foundations, and so forth. The legal basis for the power grab is often flimsy in the extreme; in the Garden State, for example, the state constitution vaguely mandates that there be a “thorough and efficient” system of public education, and “educational equity” lawyers have prevailed on the courts to erect the whole thirty-year edifice of Abbott orders on a filling in of those mysterious blanks, a process that Gov. Christie has accurately described as “legislating from the bench”. (Our friend Hans Bader at CEI has more here and here.) In New Jersey, as in many other states and cities subject to these suits, governors and legislators may come and go, but the permanent government of court orders and negotiated consent decrees grinds on and on, conferring a curiously unaccountable power on the lawyers who manage and advance the litigation and their circle of allies.

It’s worth noting that since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in San Antonio v. Rodriguez, the federal courts have stayed out of most school finance litigation, leaving it to state courts. For decades, outspoken voices in the law schools have been calling for Rodriguez to be overturned or at least end-run so as to confer an Abbott-like charter for social experimentation on the federal courts, which could then proceed to issue orders equalizing school finance, ordering “Robin Hood” aid to underperforming districts, and so forth. The most prominent advocate of this view in recent years has been a Berkeley law professor named Goodwin Liu – his views are summarized by admirers here and here – which may explain in part why Liu’s recent Ninth Circuit nomination raised such strong feelings.

Should We Spend More on Failed Programs?

Last month, I testified before the House Education & the Workforce Committee. The most startling part of that experience was the response to my testimony offered by ranking Democrat George Miller (who had chaired the committee in the previous Congress.) The archived web-cast is now available, and Rep. Miller’s response begins at 42:29.

To set things up: I reported that the federal government has spent $2 trillion dollars on k-12 schooling over the past two generations, and failed to achieve either of its avowed goals (raising overall achievement, and narrowing the gaps by family income and minority status). To this, Rep. Miller replied:

I think when you look at student performance and you look at money and you want to say that somehow there should be some correlation there I think that’s wrong-headed.

Really? I know that Democrats support higher government spending than libertarians and conservatives, but it’s always been my understanding that they do this because they imagine the extra spending will actually accomplish something. I have never before heard anyone suggest that we should spend more taxpayer money without any expectation that spending is correlated with outcomes. I can’t believe that Rep. Miller’s view is widely shared by American voters—even by those who voted for him.

The congressman also made what I took to be an effort to undermine the test data I had presented, saying that “After No Child Left Behind, millions of people were added to the test pool that were left out before.”

With respect to the National Assessment of Educational Progress test score trends I presented during my testimony, this statement is incorrect. The NAEP Long Term Trends results have always been based on nationally representative samples of students and to my knowledge NCLB did not affect those sampling procedures in any way. I can only guess that Rep. Miller was referring to the NCLB’S effect on student participation in state tests, but if so his comment is not germane.

Congress really has spent 2 trillion taxpayer dollars and achieved neither of its avowed k-12 goals. Cutting these ineffective programs would save scores of billions annually.

We Have Too Many Teachers Already!

A story yesterday on CNNMoney.com describes the plight of Jenny Frank, who is young and eager to begin a career in teaching but hasn’t been able to land a job. It’s always sad to hear of people failing to find work in their chosen field, but the article in question completely misses a staggeringly important national story. As I mentioned this morning on Fox ‘n’ Friends: we have about 1.5 million too many teachers already!

Since 1970, public school enrollment has barely budged–up just 9 percent. Over the same period, employment has doubled. We’ve added 3 million new government school jobs. Half of those are teachers, another quarter are teachers’ aides, and the rest are service personnel and bureaucrats. This hiring binge has contributed to a quadrupling in the real, inflation-adjusted cost of a k-12 education: from $38,000 to $150,000 (constant 2009 dollars). It has not contributed to improved student achievement which, at best, has been flat at the end of high-school over that entire period.

If we went back to the staff-to-pupil ratio of 1970, we’d save something like $200 billion annually. And since achievement didn’t go up with the hiring boom, there’s no reason to expect it would fall if we pared back the government school rolls. And if staff reductions were focused on the lowest-performers, we would likely see student learning gains as kids were pulled out of the classes of bad teachers and placed into the classes of better ones. Our classes are currently much smaller than those of other nations that outperform us anyway (about 22 to 24 students per class in the US, versus an international average of 29).

Alas, none of that is going to happen while the education of American children remains focused on serving the adults employed by the system rather than kids. But imagine if education were part of the free enterprise system, in which quality and efficiency are handsomely rewarded and failure is penalized. The right-sizing of America’s education labor force would happen automatically, as parents shunned inneffective, expensive, overstaffed schools in favor of those that hired and retained only competent teachers–and only as many as are actually required to effectively reach children.

Isn’t education important enough to do what actually works?

New Report: DC Voucher Program Still a Success

The latest and final scheduled report on the DC voucher program is out.


Even a tiny, restricted program that’s only been around for six years increases graduation rates, has a positive impact on at least some groups of students, harms no groups of students, and does this for less than a third of what the DC Public Schools spend.

DCPS spends around $28,000 per student. The last report pegged the average voucher at just $6,620. The maximum voucher cost is just $7,500.

Huge sums of money saved, student performance increased, parents happier … why is this program being killed?

Oh, right.

GAO: Dept. of Ed. Suffers Oversight Deficiencies

A report released today by the federal government’s non-partisan General Accounting Office finds deficits in the Department of Education’s financial and program oversight. According to the GAO, “These shortcomings can lead to weaknesses in program implementation that ultimately result in failure to effectively serve the students, parents, teachers, and administrators those programs were designed to help.”

The GAO’s findings are consistent with the longstanding pattern: for forty years, Americans have steadily increased spending on public schools without any resulting improvement in student performance by the end of high school (see the figures here and here).

The Obama administration has touted its $100 billion in education stimulus spending as a key to long term economic growth. What the data show, however, is that higher spending on public schools over the past two generations has not improved academic outcomes. And economists such as Stanford’s Eric Hanushek have shown that it is improved academic achievement, not higher public school spending, that accelerates economic growth.

So if the administration is serious in wanting education to boost the American economy, it must support reforms that are proven to significantly raise achievement, such as those that bring to bear real market freedoms and incentives – programs like the DC private school choice program that the administration has decided to kill despite its proven effectiveness.

What about K-12, Secretary Duncan?

Speaking to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, education secretary Arne Duncan said that “he would gladly cut federal red tape if institutions, in return, showed greater progress on improving student performance.” So the secretary supports less government intrusion in education if schools show improvement.

Except he doesn’t. Not at the K-12 level, anyway. Because Arne Duncan has advocated a slow death for the DC voucher program that his own Department of Education shows is… wait for it… significantly improving outcomes while getting government out of the business of running schools altogether.

But maybe that’s the problem. Schools work better the smaller the role government plays in them, but that means we don’t really need a secretary of education at all, do we?