Topic: Education and Child Policy

Feds Love Higher Ed Scapegoats

For-profit colleges. Accreditors. Endowments. Loan servicers. Debit card companies. Federal policymakers have blamed just about everyone associated with higher education but themselves for the Ivory Tower’s myriad problems. The most recent target just happens to be one specific accreditor: the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), which accredits lots of those icky proprietary schools.

Now, ACICS might be as bad as its detractors say. I don’t know because, frankly, I don’t have the time or resources to launch a full and fair investigation into the group. Of course, that is itself a huge problem: Unless you have umpteen free hours on your hands, it is very hard to know whether “bad actors” are really bad, their accusers are jumping to conclusions or are political opportunists, or some combination of those things.

Here is what I do know: Washington gives out big sums of money to people to pay for college without meaningfully determining whether those people are prepared for higher education. That fuels rampant price, credential, and luxury inflation, and seriously mutes incentives for students to think critically about their higher education choices. In other words, “caring and generous” federal policy – policy that lets politicians telegraph how “concerned” they are with education, the poor, and the middle class – is very much at the self-defeating root of all of higher ed’s biggest problems.

So go after ACICS, the openly for-profit schools they accredit, and anyone else you think looks bad (while ignoring crucial context needed to see reality). But don’t expect doing so to fix higher ed. Expect it to just lead to other hunts when these scapegoats are dispatched, and the Ivory Tower getting no better.

NH Governor Vetoes School Choice Bill

For a few years now, the town of Croydon, NH (population 651) has been fighting with the governor and state board of education over their school choice policy. The town isn’t large enough to sustain its own K-12 district school, so it contracts with a neighboring town to educate most of its residents’ children starting in 5th grade. But when its contract was approaching expiration a few years ago, the town decided to give local parents the option of sending their children to private schools as well, and the town would cover tuition up to the amount that it was spending per pupil at the neighboring district school (about $12,000).

That’s when the governor and state education bureaucrats got involved. They objected to the town’s use of tax revenue at non-government schools, though they had difficulty pointing to exactly which law or statute the town was violating. They’re currently embroiled in a lawsuit to sort out whether Croydon has the authority to decide how to spend its local tax dollars, but meanwhile the state legislature passed a bill clarifying that Croydon and similar towns have the authority to enact their own school choice policies. 

Last week, NH Gov. Maggie Hassan vetoed that bill citing two arguments I had already refuted in a Union Leader op-ed earlier in the week. In her veto message, Gov. Hassan wrote:

House Bill 1637 diverts taxpayer money to private and religious schools with no accountability or oversight, a clear violation of the New Hampshire Constitution, which states, ‘… no money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools of institutions of any religious sect or denomination.’ Not only is the bill unconstitutional, it also has no mechanism to ensure a student’s constitutional right to the opportunity to receive an adequate education and would undermine the state’s efforts to ensure a strong and robust public education system for all New Hampshire students.

“Under current New Hampshire law, public schools are required to provide the opportunity for an adequate education, as defined by the Legislature, and are held accountable through laws and rules that require monitoring and review by the Department of Education. Additionally, as required by statute and as a result of Supreme Court decisions requiring a statewide education accountability system, New Hampshire schools are required to participate in the Statewide Educational Improvement and Assessment Program. If House Bill 1637 is enacted, public funds would be used to send students to private schools – which are only approved by the Department of Education for attendance and not curriculum, without the same accountability standards as the public schools – violating the requirements of state law and the state Constitution.

There’s No Such Thing as a ‘Public’ School

Perhaps the most pervasive myth about our nation’s education system is the notion that “public schools have to take all children.” Last year, when criticizing charter schools that she claimed, “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids,” Hillary Clinton quipped, “And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation, because they do, thankfully, take everybody.” 

No, in fact, they do not.

At best, so-called “public” schools have to take all children in a particular geographic area, although they can and do expel children based on their behavior. They are more appropriately termed “district schools” because they serve residents of a particular district, not the public at large. Privately owned shopping malls are more “public” than district schools.

Not a “Better Way” on Education

Yesterday, the House GOP released a report called A Better Way: Our Vision for a Confident America. Alas, at least in education, only if you think doing basically the same thing we’re doing right now is a “better way” could this report please you. And there is little to suggest what we’re doing now is working.

Start with pre-k education. While acknowledging the undeniable—“gold-standard” research commissioned by the feds themselves has shown federal Head Start has no discernable, lasting benefits—the report does not call for even decreasing Head Start spending, much less eliminating the program. No, it proclaims that early-childhood programs are very important and what Washington should do—again, with no talk about actually decreasing funding—is “streamline” duplicative programs and fund more research into “what works.” Because states, or local governments, or philanthropists, could never fund such research!

That’s not a better way. That is a way, maybe, to mute attacks that Republicans “don’t care” about little children or the poor. So maybe it’s a politically better way. But it isn’t a better way on policy.

At the elementary and secondary level, the report says nice things about choice, including the DC voucher program, which is all well and good. It also touts the Every Student Succeeds Act—the replacement for No Child Left Behind—before, frankly, we know what it is going to look like in practice. More and more, it seems the law may have given too much power to the U.S. Secretary of Education, which the report warns against in only the broadest terms.

A better way? We’ll see.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the report’s higher education discussion. Basically, the better way is—of course—to “streamline” stuff, including federal regulations, while failing to even mention the mountain of evidence that federal student aid—all $161 billion of it—fuels rampant price inflation and student debt; encourages massive noncompletion; finances credential inflation; and abets demand for on-campus water parks and other extreme amenities.

While we’re on the subject, the report falls all over itself to tout Pell Grants, but it would sure be refreshing if someone, in looking for a better way for everyone—taxpayers included—were to at least note how fundamentally unfair Pell Grants are. A huge benefit of completing college is to greatly increase one’s lifetime earnings—to use a term some people find distasteful, to profit—and what Pell says is you should be able to make that profit with other people’s money and no obligation to pay them back. How’s that fair?

There is one more omission from the report: any mention of the Constitution, and whether it gives the federal government authority to do any of these things. But if whether the programs work doesn’t matter, probably no one is going to care about a minor, abstract thing like the rule of law.

The “better way” on all these issues would be to be frank about the effects of federal policies, what the federal government is constitutionally permitted to do, and act accordingly. But that seems to be asking way too much.

Gates Foundation Cops – a Bit — To Dangerous Common Core Hubris

Yesterday, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, made an important admission in an open letter about the Common Core:

Deep and deliberate engagement is essential to success. Rigorous standards and high expectations are meaningless if teachers aren’t equipped to help students meet them.

Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards. We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators – particularly teachers – but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.

This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart. The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers.

Think about this. One of numerous objections to the Core has been that the Obama administration, at the behest of Core advocates including Gates, attempted to impose the standards on the entire country without the Core ever having been tested. Avoiding the sort of implementation obstacles that Desmond-Hellmann laments is exactly why testing – in a federalist system, typically done by a state or two voluntarily trying something – is so important. It is how you learn what works and what doesn’t, how to improve it, and it is how you keep the whole country from suffering when something fails. But no, Gates and other Core supporters could not wait for that – they had to impose the Core on everyone because, well, they just knew what America needed.

Or maybe they didn’t.

No one – not the Gates Foundation, not the Obama administration, no one – is omniscient, which is one reason it is so dangerous to impose one “solution” on everyone. There is a very good chance that the solution, even if it seems foolproof, will have lots of major, unanticipated problems.

The question now is, will Gates and other Core advocates learn from the ill effects of their hubris, and cease their efforts to impose a single solution on all people?

We can only hope.

Nevada Judge: Education Savings Accounts Are Constitutional

Dismissing a challenge from the ACLU, yesterday Las Vegas District Court Judge Eric Johnson ruled that Nevada’s education savings account (ESA) program is constitutional. However, the ESA program is still on hold due to a second lawsuit against the ESA program in which the judge issued an injunction against issuing the accounts. That case is currently pending before the Nevada Supreme Court, and it is possible that the two legal challenges will be merged.

The ACLU challenged the ESA law on two grounds, claiming that the ESA violated the Nevada Constitution’s “uniformity” clause and the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment. Siding with the state of Nevada and the Institute for Justice, the court rejected these claims. 

“Uniform” Does Not Mean “Exclusive”

Nevada’s state constitution requires that the legislature “shall provide for a uniform system of common schools.” These schools must “be established and maintained in each school district at least six months in every year” and it is forbidden for these schools to “allow instruction of a sectarian character therein.” In a separate clause, the state constitution enjoins the legislature to “encourage” education “by all suitable means.”

The ACLU argued the “suitable means” mentioned in Article XI, Section 1 are defined by uniformity clause in Section 2. The ACLU cited the infamous Bush v. Holmes decision in Florida, in which Florida’s state supreme court struck down the state’s voucher program by interpreting the state’s duty to create a “uniform” system of public schools to mean that the state had a duty to provide a system of schooling exclusively according to the means described in the state constitution, despite the state constitution empowering the legislation to create “other public education programs that the needs of the people may require.” (The Florida Education Association is now suing to halt the state’s tax-credit scholarship program on the same grounds.)

However,  the judge rejected this interpretation, holding instead that that in these two clauses, “the framers indicated that they intended to create two duties, a broad one to encourage education by ‘all suitable means,’ and a specific, but separate, one to create a uniform public school system.” The judge noted that the framers’ “use of two different sections to set out the Legislature’s responsibilities without reference in either section to the other plainly suggests the sections are separate and distinct.” By contrast, adopting the ACLU’s clever but strained interpretation would, according to the judge, “make section 1 superfluous, without any meaning or purpose.”

In other words, the Nevada constitution requires the state to establish a non-sectarian system of public schools, but it is also empowered to encourage education by other means that are not limited to non-sectarian schooling. 

The Evidence Is In: School Choice Works

There are a great many reasons to support educational choice: maximizing freedom, respecting pluralism, reducing social conflict, empowering the poor, and so on. One reason is simply this: it works.

This week, researchers Patrick J. Wolf, M. Danish Shakeel, and Kaitlin P. Anderson of the University of Arkansas released the results of their painstaking meta-analysis of the international, gold-standard research on school choice programs, which concluded that, on average, such programs have a statistically significant positive impact on student performance on reading and math tests. Moreover, the magnitude of the positive impact increased the longer students participated in the program.

As Wolf observed in a blog post explaining the findings, the “clarity of the results… contrasts with the fog of dispute that often surrounds discussions of the effectiveness of private school choice.”

That’s So Meta

One of the main advantages of a meta-analysis is that it can overcome the limitations of individual studies (e.g., small samples sizes) by pooling the results of numerous studies. This meta-analysis is especially important because it includes all random-assignment studies on school choice programs (the gold standard for social science research), while excluding studies that employed less rigorous methods. The analysis included 19 studies on 11 school choice programs (including government-funded voucher programs as well as privately funded scholarship programs) in Colombia, India, and the United States. Each study compared the performance of students who had applied for and randomly won a voucher to a “control group” of students who had applied for a voucher but randomly did not receive one. As Wolf explained, previous meta-analyses and research reviews omitted some gold-standard studies and/or included less rigorous research:

The most commonly cited school choice review, by economists Cecilia Rouse and Lisa Barrow, declares that it will focus on the evidence from existing experimental studies but then leaves out four such studies (three of which reported positive choice effects) and includes one study that was non-experimental (and found no significant effect of choice).  A more recent summary, by Epple, Romano, and Urquiola, selectively included only 48% of the empirical private school choice studies available in the research literature.  Greg Forster’s Win-Win report from 2013 is a welcome exception and gets the award for the school choice review closest to covering all of the studies that fit his inclusion criteria – 93.3%.

Survey Says: School Choice Improves Student Performance

The meta-analysis found that, on average, participating in a school choice program improves student test scores by about 0.27 standard deviations in reading and 0.15 standard deviations in math. In laymen’s terms, these are “highly statistically significant, educationally meaningful achievement gains of several months of additional learning from school choice.”