Tag: u s department of education

Beating Back Big (Ed.) Brother?

It certainly seems quixotic to try to reverse the federal invasion of American education—it’s “for the children,” for crying out loud!—but there are signs that the forces of constitutional and educational good might be making progress. The fact of the matter is that people seemingly across the ideological spectrum have had it with the illogical, rigid, and failed No Child Left Behind Act, and very few people want to keep that sort of thing in place.

What’s the evidence of this?

For one, both Senate Republicans and Democrats are putting out NCLB reauthorization bills that would significantly reduce the mandates the current law puts on states, including the hated and utterly unrealistic full-proficiency-by-2014 deadline. On the House side, Republicans have for months been advancing bills aimed at reducing the size and prescriptiveness of Washington’s edu-occupation. The White House, too, has been arguing that NCLB is far too bureaucratic. Finally, GOP presidential candidates are returning to what was, before the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush, an obvious Republican position: there should be no U.S. Department of Education whatsoever.

So perhaps NCLB will be remembered as the high-water mark of federal school control.

Perhaps, but we’re nowhere near the promised land yet.

First, there is the extremely troubling way the Obama administration is pushing NCLB aside: issuing states waivers from the law, but only if they implement administration-dictated measures, including ”college and career ready standards,” a euphemism for federal curriculum control. But even if they were demanding that states adopt universal private school choice, this would be extremely dangerous, and far beyond just education. The administration is for all intents and purposes unilaterally making law: no separation of powers, no Congressional approval—nothing! Essentially, the rule of law is being replaced by the rule of man, and no one should stand for that even if they think, as I do, that No Child Left Behind is an absolute dud. It reminds me of of one of my all-time favorite movie scenes.

And then there are those federal standards, the supposedly “state-led and voluntary” Common Core standards that Washington just happens to have repeatedly shoved onto states, whether through Race to the Top or waivers. They are perhaps the greatest threat to educational freedom we’ve yet seen, holding the potential to let Washington dictate what every child in America will learn, no matter how controversial, or unproven, or unfit for any kids who are not “the average.”

Fortunately, resistance to these, too, seems to be gaining traction. Perhaps the most heartening evidence is Prof. Jay Greene having been invited a few weeks ago to testify on national standards before the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. Jay terrifically summarized the myriad logical and empirical failings of national standards generally, and the Common Core specifically, and having his testimony out there is useful in and of itself. But more important is that at least some people in Congress are paying attention to this largely—and intentionally—under-the-radar conquest. Meanwhile, there is evidence that in at least some states that have adopted the Common Core people are becoming aware of it and starting to ask questions. At the very least, these happenings offer reason to hope that national standards supporters won’t keep getting away with just repeating the fluff logic of “a modern nation needs a single standard, and don’t worry, the Common Core has been rated as good by all us Common Core supporters.”

What has for a long time seemed impossible is suddenly feeling a bit more plausible: withdrawing the Feds from our kids’ classrooms. But there’s a huge amount still to do, and gigantic threats staring us in the face.

When Cops Go Commando, It’s No Laughing Matter

I received a response to my recent blog post on the Department of Education serving a warrant and dragging Kenneth Wright of Stockton, California from his home at six in the morning (incident added to the Raidmap, and here’s an updated link to the story). Here is the word from Department of Education Press Secretary Justin Hamilton:

“Yesterday, the Depart of Education’s office of inspector general executed a search warrant at Stockton California residence with the presence of local law enforcement authorities.

While it was reported in local media that the search was related to a defaulted student loan, that is incorrect. This is related to a criminal investigation. The Inspector General’s Office does not execute search warrants for late loan payments.

Because this is an ongoing criminal investigation, we can’t comment on the specifics of the case. We can say that the OIG’s office conducts about 30-35 search warrants a year on issues such as bribery, fraud, and embezzlement of federal student aid funds.

All further questions on this issue should be directed to the Department of Education’s Inspector General’s Office.”

This does not change my analysis one bit. The Department of Education doesn’t need a squad of “operators” busting down doors in white collar crime cases.

Search warrants issued pursuant to an investigation of bribery, fraud or embezzlement shouldn’t require door breaching at dawn unless there’s some exigent circumstances justification. Did the agents think that Kenneth Wright was going to resist the warrant service with deadly weapons, or destroy evidence? If so, say so. At least it would provide some evidence of surveillance prior to the raid or actual investigation. Investigation or surveillance might have revealed that the target of the warrant, Wright’s estranged wife, would not be home when agents came knocking.

Some gunbloggers wondered a while back about a federal website soliciting contracts to provide short-barreled shotguns for the Department of Education (H/T Uncle and Tam). Now we know what they’re intended for, and it’s incompatible with a free society.

Help Break My Common Curriculum Fever

Over at Flypaper, Chester Finn suggests that people like me are either crazy or on the verge of it for fearing that the Shanker Institute’s “common content” manifesto might very well be another step toward federal control of American education.  

“Over in the more feverish corners of the blogosphere, and sometimes even in saner locales,” he writes, ”the Shanker Institute’s call for ‘common content’ curriculum to accompany the Common Core standards has triggered a panic attack.”

Now, I wouldn’t say “panic attack.” To panic is to “be overcome by a sudden fear,” but I’ve been watching the move toward federal curriculum control for some time. Back in 2008 many of the groups behind the Common Core called for Washington to “incentivize” adoption of national standards. In 2009, the Obama administration made adopting common standards critical to compete in the so-called Race to the Top. In 2010, the administration put common standards front-and-center in the accountability piece of its No Child Left Behind reauthorization blueprint. Finally, that same year the U.S. Department of Education chose two consortia to develop national assessments to go with national standards. So when I read the Shanker Institute’s proposal, with its recommendation that the federal government spend taxpayer money to help implement ”purely voluntary” curriculum ”guidelines,” I didn’t panic. I saw the same obvious movement toward federal curriculum control I’d been observing for years.

But maybe I am a bit “feverish.” Maybe I do need to chillax a bit. Thankfully, I know just the thing to help me do that:  National-standards fans should pronounce publicly and unequivocally – perhaps issue another manifesto! – that they do not want federal money in any way connected to common standards, and state that they will oppose any effort to “incentivize,” “support,” “cajole,” “threaten,” or do anything else to states or districts to push them to adopt common curricula. Were national-standards champions to do that – you know, just demand that all this be as purely voluntary as they say it is – and I and others like me would no doubt be well on the road to recovery.

Somehow, I don’t expect my forehead to cool off anytime soon.

Dear Defamed: Trust Us, We’re the Government

With the release of a new report analyzing a quietly amended Government Accountability Office study that’s been used to club for-profit colleges, fear of GAO bias has reached a fever pitch. Sadly, the GAO’s response to the report does anything but assuage that fear.

To get a decent sense for the government abuse both surrounding, and possibly perpetrated by, the GAO study in question, it’s worth a quick rehash of events.

Basically, the study was requested by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee who has been waging war against for-profit colleges on the suspicion that the sector is rife with fraud, waste, and abuse. To get data to support his suspicion, Harkin asked the GAO to conduct “secret shopper” research in which investigators pretending to be prospective students visit schools to discover fraudulent admissions and financial aid practices.

In August 2010 the GAO released selected findings in testimony to Harkin’s committee and an accompanying report. The GAO said that it found abuses in all the schools it visited, which Harkin and others suspicious of profit-seekers seized on to assert that the sector is, indeed, teeming with fraud.  That the GAO’s report explicitly noted that the sample of schools it visited was non-random and, therefore, its results impossible to apply to all of for-profit higher education was no matter: the rhetoric of those with a bias against for-profit schools was off and running.

In November, while for-profit schools sought unsuccessfully to get all the recorded and other material needed to substantiate the GAO’s findings, the GAO silently slipped a revised version of the report out, one that featured numerous changes, all of which redounded to for-profits’ favor. And it wasn’t just correcting minor oversights: There was lots of recorded dialogue that had been missing from the original report, material that the GAO must have known about before issuing it’s initial, very damaging report.

Which brings us to the present day, and the new report that tears apart the amended version of the GAO study. Using available audio recordings of the shoppers’ visits – and many recordings and other evidence is not available, being held by the GAO and U.S. Department of Education – investigators from the firm of Norton/Norris, Inc., commissioned by the Coalition for Educational Success, report that only a quarter of the GAO’s findings can be substantiated after factoring out missing recordings. In other words, an already crumbling report seems to be utterly collapsing.

So is the GAO apologizing for this, or at least saying they’ll make all their material available? No way, as their statement to Inside Higher Ed makes clear:

“The consultants hired by the Coalition to discredit the report never contacted GAO for explanations and failed to take into account many factors, including the fact that not all information in the report can be found on the audio tapes posted to the Internet,” Chuck Young, GAO’s managing director for public affairs, said in an e-mailed statement. “For example, GAO turned over some videotapes to the inspector general at the Department of Education due to evidence of serious wrongdoing uncovered by investigators. Audio from those visits was not able to be posted. There were also written materials that were examined as part of the work and are not on the tapes. We are reviewing the tapes to see if there were any segments that were not provided to the committee.

“But the bottom line remains that a GAO review team independent from the investigators who did this work examined the report and found no material flaws in the evidentiary support for the overall message of the testimony and consequently our findings did not change. We did issue the errata at their suggestion to clarify our work and provide more precise language. We continue to stand by the overall message of this report.”

You don’t have to suffer from tinfoil-hat paranoia to see real and potential government abuse all over this sorry episode. First, opportunist politicians and others misused the initial GAO report to smear the whole for-profit sector. Then, once the damage was done, the GAO made significant changes to their report without even so much as issuing a press release. And now, as even the amended report is being ripped to shreds, the GAO’s response is basically “you can’t have access to the evidence being used against you, and you don’t need it: We’ve already decided we’re right and you’re wrong.”

Now, are for-profit schools pure and blameless? Absolutely not: Norton/Norris confirmed several of the GAO’s findings, and some findings they questioned are probably accurate. Moreoever, as I’ve pointed out before, many for-profit schools are happy to take students carrying taxpayer dollars despite knowing there’s little chance that those students will ever finish their studies. Of course, that makes those institutions no different from many public and nonprofit private schools about which Sen. Harkin evinces no concern. 

Ultimately, though, much more important than the immediate effect of all of this on for-profit schools is the lesson it offers for all Americans: Run afoul of the sensibilities of the wrong politicians – especially if you make a deal with the devil and take government funds – and government can hobble you without ever worrying about due process, transparency, or just plain fairness. All it has to do is make accusations.

President Just Can’t Leave Them Kids Alone

Remember back in September, the huge hullabaloo over President Obama’s planned address to America’s students to start the new school year? Remember how concerned many people were that the speech would be heavily politicized, and perhaps even designed to “indoctrinate” kids about the President’s views on such controversial issues as health-care reform? You probably don’t remember because the media buried it and the speech ended up being fairly innocuous, but do you recall that the uproar was largely a result of U.S. Department of Education lesson plans that advised teachers to have kids talk about how they could help President Obama, and a cover letter from Education Secretary Arne Duncan that noted that schools are engines of “social progress”? Well it turns out that alarmed parents and taxpayers might have had very good reason to be concerned: In the pages of the most recent Parade magazine, the President furnishes just the sort of politics and social-change laden message to students that lots of parents and taxpayers feared.

The President begins his Parade address by expressing his regret that he “couldn’t be at every high school and college commencement this year.” This might seem uncontroversial, but it actually raises one of the most fundamental problems with any president forcing himself into a child’s schooling: Under the Constitution, the federal government has no authority to interfere in education.  With this president especially, though, it appears that among the ever-growing titles accompanying the presidency is now Principal-in-Chief. But that is most definitely not a legitimate presidential title, and at the very least taking it ensures that education – even if unintended – will constantly be wrapped up in White House level politics. So when kids should be sitting in their classes learning, they’ll be increasingly swept up in national political storms, just as happened last September.

Unfortunately, with President Obama’s address in Parade, we see exactly why people of all political stripes should demand that the president stay out of their kids’ classrooms: the president very well might push political and social ideas on their kids that they find unacceptable. In the case of President Obama, he has chosen to push his not-so-subtle campaign against Americans who dare to to earn profits – charlatans who try to produce things that others want and need, and earn a living through voluntary exchange – and to continue to elevate to sainthood those who work for nonprofits and, of course, government. Oh, and he throws a bit of alternative-energy environmentalism in there, too:

Of course, each of you has the right to take your diploma and seek the quickest path to the biggest paycheck or the highest title possible. But remember: You can choose to broaden your concerns to include your fellow citizens and country instead. By tying your ambitions to America’s, you’ll hitch your wagon to a cause larger than yourself. You can choose a career in public service or the nonprofit sector, or teach in an underserved school. If you have medical training, you can work in an understaffed clinic. Love science? You can discover new sources of clean energy or launch a business that makes the most efficient and affordable solar panels or wind turbines.

That their kids would be subjected to this sort of politicized, collectivist rhetoric from the president is exactly what numerous parents – many of whom pursue the filthy paychecks that come with manufacturing computers, building houses, keeping a company’s books, editing magazines, and myriad other things that make all Americans’ lives richer – feared in September. And it might very well be what they would have gotten had there not been a public furor well before Obama’s speech was delivered.

Perhaps, though, we owe the President a debt of gratitude for his insatiable desire to interject himself into our children’s education. Thanks to both the uproar created by his September address, and the objectionable content of his Parade message, the President has provided two terrific illustrations of why the federal government should get out of education.  He has also illustrated why overall we need to take education away from politicians and let parents freely choose among private educational options. In short, he has unwittingly cast a bright light on a huge reason we need full educational freedom: Without it, our children will at best be embroiled in repeated political conflict, and at worst truly face political indoctrination.

Neither Standards Nor Shame Can Do the Job

Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews has done it again: lifted my hopes up just to drop them right back down.

In November, you might recall, Mathews called for the elimination of the office of U.S. Secretary of Education. There just isn’t evidence that the Ed Sec has done much good, he wrote.

My reaction to that, of course: “Right on!”

Only sentences later, however, Mathews went on to declare that we should keep the U.S. Department of Education.


Today, Mathews is calling for the eradication of something else that has done little demonstrable good – and has likely been a big loss – for American education: the No Child Left Behind Act. Mathews thinks that the law has run its course, and laments that under NCLB state tests – which are crucial to  standards-and-accountability-based reforms – “started soft and have gotten softer.”

The reason for this ever-squishier trend, of course, is that under NCLB states and schools are judged by test results, leading state politicians and educrats to do all they can to make good results as easy to get as possible. And no, that has not meant educating kids better – it’s meant making the tests easier to pass.

Unfortunately, despite again seeing its major failures, Mathews still can’t let go of federal education involvement. After calling for NCLB’s end, he declares that we instead need a national, federal test to judge how all states and schools are doing.

To his credit, Mathews does not propose that the feds write in-depth standards in multiple subjects, and he explicitly states that Washington should not be in the business of punishing or rewarding schools for test performance.

“Let’s let the states decide what do to with struggling schools,” he writes.

What’s especially important about this is that when there’s no money attached to test performance there’s little reason for teachers unions, administrators associations, and myriad other education interests to expend political capital gaming the tests, a major problem under NCLB.

But here’s the thing: While Mathews’ approach would do less harm than NCLB, it wouldn’t do much good. Mathews suggests that just having the feds “shame” states with bad national scores would force improvement, but we’ve seen public schools repeatedly shrug off massive ignominy since at least the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk. As long as they keep getting their money, they couldn’t care much less.

So neither tough standards nor shaming have led to much improvement. Why?

As I’ve laid out before, it’s a simple matter of incentives.

With punitive accountability, the special interests that would be held to high standards have strong motivation – and usually the power – to demand dumbed-down tests, lowered minimum scores, or many other accountability dodges.  The result: Little or no improvement.

What if there are no serious ramifications?

Then the system gets its money no matter what and again there is little or no improvement.

It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

So what are reformers to do? One thing: Take government – which will almost always be dominated by the people it employs – out of the accountability equation completely. Give parents control of education funds and make educators earn their pay by having to attract and satisfy customers.

Unfortunately, that still seems to be too great a leap for Jay Mathews. But one of these days, I’m certain, he’ll go all the way!

The Biggest Leeches Always Live

By proposing to eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan Program, President Obama has raised a pretty big ruckus in the relatively staid world of higher education policy. For the uninitiated, FFELP uses taxpayer dollars to essentially guarantee profits to participating financial institutions, and to keep student loans cheap and abundant. 

Since neither corporate welfare nor rampant tuition inflation are really good things, getting rid of this beast would be a welcome move. Unfortunately, the president wants to replace FFELP with direct-from-Washington lending and to plow the savings into Pell Grants, so there’ll be no savings for taxpayers and probably very little beneficial effect on college prices. 

As I wrote on NewMajority.com in May, no one should expect big lenders to get kicked off the federal gravy train:

[T]he Obama administration is saying they’d keep private companies as servicers of loans to maintain quality customer service. Of course, this could very well be worse than the status quo: It will likely keep at least the biggest current lenders (read: Sallie Mae) at the political trough, but Washington will be THE lender for all students.

Right I was! Or, at least, signs of my prescience keep getting brighter:  Despite Obama promising to go to war against an ”army” of lenders’ lobbyists, the U.S. Department of Education just awarded Sallie Mae and three other big lenders lucrative contracts to service federal loans. So while smaller leeches could very well be removed from their supply of taxpayer blood, the biggest will keep on sucking!