Topic: Education and Child Policy

School Choice Support Has Media Mainstreamed

When an issue that used to be considered free-market fringe is embraced as a moral litmus test for politicians by liberal editorial boards (or idealized fictional Democratic Presidents), you know the issue-argument has been won. That’s certainly not to say the policy war has been won, but an important battle toward realizing that goal has been.

Last week the Washington Post denounced the recent attempt by Congress to kill the DC voucher program with a poison pill buried in the omnibus spending bill.

Today the Chicago Tribune editorializes in support of DC vouchers, noting in the process the strong of achievement gains from school choice, the financial advantages of choice, the corrupting influence of the teachers unions on the Democratic Party, and the rank hypocrisy of a President Obama who sends his own children to an expensive private school while kowtowing to the unions in his opposition to school choice for those without independent means.

The editorial is remarkable, quite heated, and particularly hard on the President. Here are the highlights, but it’s worth a full read:

[The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is] in Washington, D.C., which has among the worst schools in America… It’s a modest undertaking, providing just $7,500 per child—less than a third of what the District of Columbia spends per pupil in public schools.

But vouchers are anathema to many in the Democratic Party because teachers unions feel threatened by the prospect of more children going to non-union private schools… Democrats to kids: Tough luck…

Of the 10 studies of existing voucher systems, says Wolf, nine found significant academic improvements… President Obama doesn’t need to be told about the deficiencies of Washington’s public schools: He rejected them in favor of a private school for his daughters. Ask how many members of Congress send their children to public schools in D.C… If they want to end the experiment at such an early stage, it’s not because they think it’s failing, but because they fear it’s working.

School Choice in D.C.: Does Obama Care as Much as Bartlet?

As the Washington Post sternly notes this morning, Democrats in Congress are trying to quietly force nearly 2,000 children back into the D.C. public schools. One parent whose children are using the federally funded D.C. voucher program to attend Sidwell Friends School along with the Obama daughters told the Post, “The mere thought of returning to public school frightens me.” But some people just can’t stand to think that kids might get educated outside the grasp of the government. 

The most honest, decent, and thoughtful Democratic president of modern times, Jed Bartlet, was surprised to find himself supporting vouchers on an episode of NBC’s “The West Wing.” Bartlet’s staff summoned the mayor of Washington, D.C., to the White House to plot strategy for his veto of a Republican-backed bill to provide vouchers for a few students in D.C. schools–and was stunned to discover that the mayor and the D.C. school board president both supported the program, as indeed Mayor Anthony Williams and School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz did in real life. Why? the president asked the mayor. “After six years of us promising to make schools better next year,” the mayor replied, “we’re ready to give vouchers a try….We spend over $13,000 per student – that’s more than anywhere else in the country – and we don’t have a lot to show for it.” (As Andrew Coulson wrote recently in the Washington Post, the real cost is actually much higher than that.)

Then the president summons his young personal aide to testify to the merits of D.C. public schools and gets another surprise:

Faced with the evidence, President Bartlet decided to do the right thing. He gave children a chance. Will Congress?

Here’s an Idea: Don’t Do Either!

One of the biggest pieces of news coming from President Obama’s budget preview is that he’d kill federal guaranteed student lending – in which the feds subsidize private lenders – and move everything to direct lending straight from the government. He promises that cutting out the middle man would save about $4 billion a year.

In the short term, that savings figure might be possible, though whether or not that is the case is likely to be hotly contested. Washington does spend a lot subsidizing loans so that they carry almost no risk to the lenders and are, hence, low-interest and abundant. Eliminating those subsidies could save some dough. That said, there is absolutely no reason to believe that making Washington the monopolist student lender will produce any long-term efficiencies. In fact, all it will do is ensure gigantic bloat, as is the case with any government monopoly.

A recent story in the New York Times, coupled with a blog entry I wrote in November, illustrates why neither guaranteed nor direct federal lending should ever be expected to produce efficient outcomes.

On the blog I wrote about how, in order to keep things rolling during the “credit crunch,” the Bush Administration was essentially going to buy up any student loans that lenders thought were too insecure. At the time, the Education Department kept declaring that whatever the feds ended up doing it would be “cost neutral” – we wouldn’t feel a thing as they kept banks and students in the money. I wondered, skeptically, how exactly that would be done, but couldn’t find anything explaining it. All I found were Education Department promises that it would be made clear…eventually.

It turns out, I was very likely right to be suspicious. As the Times reported on Wednesday:

The program is supposed to cost taxpayers nothing, but the Obama administration has asked for additional analysis.

“We have reviewed the analysis with the staff here, and we do not have confidence in the bottom line,” said a senior official at the White House Office of Management and Budget, who insisted on anonymity, citing administration policy. Referring to differences between agreements entered into by the departing Bush administration and public descriptions of the program, the official added, “The documents on their face raise serious questions about whether it’s cost-neutral.”

So it seems likely that the government essentially lied to America. “Oh yeah – ‘cost neutral.’ Sorry. We thought you wouldn’t notice.”

What this little episode illustrates is something we frankly already knew: Government officials will happily deceive us if that’s what it takes to enact policies that they think will make them look good, especially in the short term (meaning, until the next election). With that in mind, whether the feds are working with a middle man or giving students the money directly, it almost certainly doesn’t matter: money will be lost, and probably in much bigger amounts than the public will be led to believe.

So what is government to do about student loans? Nothing! Washington should get out of the loan business and leave promising students and profit-seeking lenders to find each other in pursuit of mutual gain. (A student with high earning potential? A bank looking to make some bucks? Why, it’s a perfect match!) Then we wouldn’t have to choose between the frying pan and the fire, nor would we continue to encourage tons of people to pursue college educations they don’t need, can’t handle, or both. In other words, we’d return both some sanity and taxpayer justice to the world of college finance.

Fairfax County Schools to Fill Budget Gap by Cutting …um, Track?

Here’s a great example of a recurring problem in news coverage: reporters too often seem to think it’s their job to act as uncritical mouthpieces for government officials. This is a particularly grievous problem in reporting on education, where they think that covering both sides of the story means calling a school district rep and a teachers union spokesperson for a quote and then paraphrasing press releases from both.

From the Washington Post on the, as the headline screams, “Bitter Medicine In Fairfax Budget”:

[County Executive Anthony H.] Griffin suggested freezing school funding at $1.6 billion, the same level as the current year, despite a projected enrollment increase of 5,000 in the 169,000-student system. School officials, who had asked for a $57 million funding increase, must now trim programs or lobby supervisors for more money.

The reporting makes it sound as if Fairfax schools are spending a total of $1.6 billion on a projected 174,000 students. The reporters probably think that’s the case … per-pupil spending at just over $9,000. It may be double the national median private school tuition of $4,000, but hey, it’s the government.

If one happens to look at the actual school district budget, one would find that they plan to spend $3.05 billion… that’s about $17,500 per student! Oh well, only 91 percent higher than the implied cost.

Superintendent Jack D. Dale predicted in January that if the county did not increase school funding, the schools would have to raise average class size by two students, eliminate summer school and cut some popular after-school activities, including indoor track. Dale said it would take decades for the school system to recover.

Really? No fat in a budget of $17,500 per student besides summer school, track, and “popular after-school activities?” And track is their talking-point example? How much can track possibly cost; there isn’t any equipment!

Next time the Post might want to do some, you know, reporting.

Cato Scholars Address Obama’s First Speech to Congress

President Barack Obama’s first address to Congress laid out a laundry list of new spending contained within the stimulus legislation and provided hints as to what will be contained in the budget - a so-called “blueprint for America’s future” - he’ll submit to the legislature. Cato Institute scholars Chris Edwards, Jim Harper, Gene Healy, Neal McCluskey, David Rittgers, John Samples and Michael D. Tanner offer their analyses of the President’s non-State-of-the-Union Address.

Subscribe to Cato’s video podcast here and Cato’s YouTube channel here.

Who Is Chucking Kids out of the DC Voucher Liferaft?

As I blogged yesterday, Congressional Democrats have incorporated language into the 2009 omnibus spending bill that would spell the beginning of the end of the DC voucher program.

According to Capitol Hill sources, the new language apparently flowed from the pen of Senator Dick Durbin (D - IL) . But if so, Durbin is not alone in looking to end the program. The DC Examiner is reporting today that House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey has urged DC Public Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee to prepare for the return of voucher students to DCPS.

How will they – and everyone who votes for this bill – justify their decision to the kids whose dreams they aim to destroy?

David Brooks Unhinged

David Brooks went completely off the deep end last night in critiquing Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s Republican response to Barack Obama’s address to Congress. According to Brooks, “in a moment when only the federal government is big enough to actually do stuff- to just ignore all that and just say ‘government is the problem, corruption, earmarks, wasteful spending,’ it’s just a form of nihilism.”

Now, I thought Jindal’s speech was rather banal and poorly delivered, but since when is it nihilism to oppose “corruption, earmarks, and wasteful spending”? Apparently, government should just do “stuff.” It doesn’t really matter whether that “stuff” is good or not, whether it will actually stimulate the economy or not. And of course, there is no problem with the fact that that “stuff” includes a government takeover of our health care system, an unworkable and expensive energy policy, an extension of a federal education policy that has failed to educate our children, higher taxes, greater debt, and more spending on just about everything. To oppose all of that is “nihilism.”

Then count me as a nihilist – or maybe I just believe in liberty.