Topic: Education and Child Policy

Expect the Worst

Yesterday, American Federation of Teachers’ President Randi Weingarten had an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for national academic standards. Of course, union support for national standards is itself almost reason enough to fight any such move to the death, but over at The Corner Ramesh Ponnuru asks a critical question, wondering “why we should expect federal standards to resemble the best state standards rather than the worst ones.”

As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, especially to the standards zealots on the right, there is no good reason to expect quality to prevail. The people who would be held to high standards, such as teachers and school administrators, have huge incentives and political power to fight rigor, and given their political heft would almost certainly prevail. Indeed, based on what’s happened with standards to date, the odds seem hugely in favor of wimpiness. As I wrote in response to Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation a couple of years ago:

Given history and political reality, Petrilli and other like-minded conservatives have very few government standards successes to hang their hats on. Indeed, that’s why they’ve had to ask the country to play 6 percent roulette: “Of course, getting national standards and tests right is no small feat,” Petrilli acknowledges. “But McCluskey is wrong to insist that it cannot be done. After all, California, Massachusetts, and Indiana managed to develop excellent standards over the past decade. If it can happen in Sacramento or Boston, it could happen in Washington, D.C., too.”

So, because three out of fifty states have gotten standards right, we should gamble on the feds getting them right, too, and give Washington the authority to set the standards for every public school in America? That’s crazy.

Maybe if we tweak Petrilli’s statement, its insanity will be more clear: “Getting national standards and tests right is no small feat. And McCluskey is right to insist that it almost certainly can’t be done. After all, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas – and the list goes on - haven’t managed to develop excellent standards over the past decade. If it can’t happen in Montgomery or Juneau, it probably won’t happen in D.C., either.”

One Last Dig

Barring a miracle, the porcine juggernaut known as “The Stimulus” is going to become law, and with it around $100 billion in new education spending. At this point I can’t point to much more evidence than I already have to demonstrate how educationally worthless this will be, but I want to add a couple of bits just to make myself feel a little better.

First, for about the trillionth time, I’ve run into a statement suggesting that all that public schools ever see are funding cuts. The quote below is from an article in this morning’s Los Angeles Times about the windfall states are poised to get when the stimulus passes:

“It’s one of the most exciting things we’ve heard about in a long time,” said Chris Eftychiou, spokesman for the nearly 90,000-student Long Beach Unified School District, which stands to gain tens of millions of dollars over the next two years.

“Usually, it’s just cuts, not additional revenue.”

Come now, LBUSD! While I could only find data for current per-pupil expenditures (which do not include capital costs) going back to 1998-99, the district’s expenditure trend, shown in the chart below, has clearly been upward. (I adjusted for inflation the data found on this California Department of Education site for LBUSD. To access the original data, all you have to do is select the report “Financial Reports for District,” go to the “general fund” tab, scroll all the way to the bottom of the page, hit the ”pop-trends” link, then select “$/student(ADA).” Simple!)

So where are these constant cuts?

Moving to higher education, the State Higher Education Executive Officers just released its FY 2008 state and local higher education funding numbers. Once again, they give the lie to the notion that public colleges perpetually face government budget axes and have to raise tuition just to make up the loss. As the chart below shows, inflation-adjusted state and local appropriations per full-time-equivalent student rose by $41 between FY 2007 and FY 2008, while tuition revenue grew by $57. Nonetheless, ivory tower denizens have been crying out for financial help, and they’ll get it – the House and Senate compromise bill appears to offer lots of cash for our “poor” ol’ public colleges.

You know what? Now I actually feel a little worse…

Charter Schools’ Fine Print: “Made in Troy”?

A New York City charter school run by the highly-regarded KIPP network is bracing for a fight over the desire of many of its teachers to unionize, reports the New York Times. Unionization would surely bring work rules that would constrain the school leadership’s ability to peretuate its successful KIPP model.

Charter schools were one of the earliest incarnations of the modern U.S. school choice movement. Enjoying somewhat greater autonomy but generally lower funding than conventional public schools, they were intended to bring to the field of education some of the benefits of free markets. Overall, they tend to perform a bit better and more efficiently than regular public schools, but do not show the more consistent or significant advantages that genuine education markets demonstrate over public school monopolies.

But charter schools have a bigger problem than not quite having what it takes to create a free education maketplace. The great danger of charter schooling is that it could well prove to be a Trojan horse for the expansion of the existing 90% government school monopoly. Charter schools not only draw students away from the existing independent school sector, some are themselves former private schools that have opted to come under the umbrella of government charter status out of financial expediency. If, after absorbing students from the truly independent private sector, charter schools then lose what little autonomy they currently have, it will lead to the expansion of the existing state school monopoly.

That has long seemed to me to be their most likely outcome, and recent events are doing nothing to brighten that dismal prognosis. States and policymakers who want to innoculate themselves against the risk of charter schools gutting the independent sector while expanding the state school monopoly should adopt policies like education tax credits that give families easier access to truly independent schools.

Nadya Suleman’s Octuplets & the Perils of Public Charity

The AP reports that you and I will be paying the cost of rearing Nadya Suleman’s newborn octuplets –  as well as her other six children – through various state and federal welfare programs:

Even before the 33-year-old single, unemployed mother gave birth to octuplets last month, she had been caring for her six other children with the help of $490 a month in food stamps, plus Social Security disability payments for three of the youngsters. The public aid will almost certainly be increased with the new additions to her family.

Also, the hospital where the octuplets are expected to spend seven to 12 weeks has requested reimbursement from Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program, for care of the premature babies, according to the Los Angeles Times…

In California, a low-income family can receive Social Security payments of up to $793 a month for each disabled child. Three children would amount to $2,379.

The Suleman octuplets’ medical costs have not been disclosed, but in 2006, the average cost for a premature baby’s hospital stay in California was $164,273, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Eight times that is more than $1.3 million, and the average cost for just one cesarean birth in 2006 was $22,762 in California.

A reasonable person might ask, “So what?  Poor kids need help.  Would you rather let them die?”  That certainly does not seem to be the answer.  Yet there are perils inherent in having government come to the rescue. 

One challenge confronting both public and private charity is known as the Samaritan’s dilemma: any effort to help the needy inevitably discourages self-help.  People at the margins don’t work as hard, or even take deliberate advantage of others’ altruism, which increases the number of people “in need.”  That appears to have happened in Suleman’s case:

Word of the public assistance has stoked the furor over Suleman’s decision to have so many children by having embryos implanted in her womb…

Suleman received disability payments for an on-the-job back injury during a riot at a state mental hospital, collecting more than $165,000 over nearly a decade before the benefits were discontinued last year.

Some of the disability money was spent on in vitro fertilizations, which was used for all 14 of her children, Suleman said. She said she also worked double shifts at the mental hospital and saved up for the treatments. She estimated that all her treatments cost $100,000.

The First Peril of Public Charity is that government does a relatively poor job of discouraging such opportunistic behavior.  Food stamps, Social Security disability payments, and Medicaid benefits are entitlement programs.  So long as Suleman meets the statutory eligibility criteria, she is legally entitled to benefits no matter how much she may be milking the system.  It is extremely difficult to tailor government eligibility rules (whether statutory or regulatory) to prevent all the possible forms of abuse.   And even if some government bureaucrat tries to cut off welfare recipients who are abusing the system, those recipients can sue the government and there are legions of lawyers who will help.  Private charity is much better at discouraging opportunistic behavior by tailoring assistance to the truly needy.  Did Suleman and her children truly need all the public assistance they had been receiving?  Would she have been able to afford in-vitro fertilization had she not been on public assistance?  If the availability of additional charity were less certain, would she have tried to get pregnant again?  Maybe, but probably not.

The Second Peril of Public Charity is that taxpayers and politicians respond to the First Peril of Public Charity by insisting that government take away people’s rights.  Much of the crusade against smokers’ and restaurateurs’ rights is justified by the need to limit government spending on medical care for smoking-related illness.  Ditto the crusade to limit your right to eat fatty foods. 

Suleman’s case has led taxpayers to recommend some startling policy responses:

On the Internet, bloggers rained insults on Suleman, calling her an “idiot,” criticizing her decision to have more children when she couldn’t afford the ones she had, and suggesting she be sterilized.

“It’s my opinion that a woman’s right to reproduce should be limited to a number which the parents can pay for,” Charles Murray [not the American Enterprise Institute scholar] wrote in a letter to the Los Angeles Daily News. “Why should my wife and I, as taxpayers, pay child support for 14 Suleman kids?”…

“From the outside you can tell that this woman was playing the system,” host Bryan Suits said on the “Kennedy and Suits” show on KFI-AM. “You’re damn right the state should step in and seize the kids and adopt them out.”

Emphasis added.

Those responses are a predictable consequence of government charity.  They reflect the same selfish rationale that the Church of Universal Coverage uses to argue for eliminating your right to choose health insurance. 

If somebody is abusing generosity, the appropriate response is not to take away their rights but to take away the generosity. (Some curtailment of parental rights can be justified if the children are in danger. But we don’t yet know if Suleman is going to get a reality-TV deal out of this.) Private charity can do that. Government is ill-equipped to do so, and so our rights come under attack.

The irony is that the Left’s adamant support for government charity is eroding smokers’ rights, property rights, dietary rights, medical rights, and now even the Left’s cherished reproductive rights – making the Left less and less liberal by the day.

No Cut-astrophe

The Obama administration is shaping up to be little more than the Office of Doomsayer in Chief, at least in the early going, and it is being obediently assisted by the media. In education, USA Today gave the office a nice boost this morning by reporting on a Center for Reinventing Public Education projection that without a stimulus, states might have to cut their education spending by 18.5 percent over the next three years. And CRPE did not include a projection for local cuts, which researcher Marguerite Roza said were impossible to make.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seized the moment, stating in the article that the analysis “obviously confirms what we have feared: that there is so much at stake now and we’re really trying to stave off catastrophe.”

Here we go again…

For one thing, predicting budget shortfalls is hardly an exact science. Moreover, unreported by USA Today, the CRPE analysis is based on the assumption that states will cut spending in all areas equally in response to revenue shortfalls. But in few states does anyone wield the kind of political power that the education establishment brings to bear.

Suppose, though, that total per-pupil expenditures – consisting of local, state, and federal dough – were to decrease by 18.5 percent. (Obviously, the feds aren’t going to cut funding, but let’s pretend that some sense somehow wafted into Washington and caught the pols by surprise.) Where would that put us? On par with Depression era funding? Modern day Sri Lanka or Zimbabwe?

Try again.

Unfortunately, the latest per-pupil funding data the federal government has is from the 2004-05 school year, which is likely lower than what was spent this year. But let’s use it anyway, if for no other reason than to give the Chicken Littles every benefit of the doubt. In 2004-05, the average per-pupil expenditure in the United States was $11,470. Reduce that by 18.5 percent, and you’re spending $9,348.

At what year does that put us? Adjusted for inflation, right about at 1996-97 – hardly major time travel! And compared to other industrialized nations? Still in the top six, nearly tied with Denmark, and that is comparing our average for elementary and secondary schooling with just secondary schooling –- the more expensive level – for everyone else.

Considering all of this along with the evidence that I have laid out previously showing the almost complete disconnect between spending and performance, as well as the massive bloat in the system, and such a cut shouldn’t be called a “catastrophe.” It should be called “why the hell didn’t we make such a cut years ago?”

Could It Be They’re Listening?

While Friday’s compromise on the bankrupting “stimulus” would just dust snow off a glacier – and who knows what will end up in the final version – there is a small silver lining for those of us at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom: education saw the biggest reductions.

For months we have been hammering away at the utter waste of cramming yet more bucks into already obese schools, and maybe, just maybe, someone has been listening. They haven’t been listening all that well – there’s still a Toll House factory’s worth of extra dough for everything from Head Start to Pell Grants – but compared to the already passed House version, the compromise bill would eliminate $40 billion from the “State Fiscal Stabilization Fund” (a massive bailout for hugely bloated state education apparatuses) and all of the money for k-12 and higher education facility construction. So, even if the remaining bill still robs children tomorrow to enrich education bureaucrats today, at least there’s a bit of movement in the right direction.