Topic: Education and Child Policy

Education for American Indians

Among the many failures of federal policies over the decades, the failures of Indian policies stand out. The government has deprived American Indians of their lands, resources, and freedom in many ways. It has failed to create an institutional structure supportive of prosperity on reservations. And the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been mismanaged for two centuries, as I discuss here.

Naomi Schaefer Riley addresses the failures of Indian policies in The New Trail of Tears, which she will discuss at an upcoming AEI forum. I will be commenting on Riley’s book at the forum.

One of Riley’s themes is the failure of federal and tribal efforts to provide a decent education for children on reservations. Riley visited numerous schools, and she reports on the disheartening conditions that she saw.  

Last week the Washington Post reported:

The federal government has repeatedly acknowledged and even lamented its failure to provide adequate education for Native American children. Now, nine Native children are taking to the courts to force Washington to take action.

The children are all members of the Havasupai Nation, whose ancestral homelands are in and around the Grand Canyon. They attend an elementary school that is run by the federal Bureau of Indian Education and is, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday, hardly recognizable as a school at all.

Havasupai Elementary School does not teach any subjects other than English and math, according to the complaint; there is no instruction in science, history, social studies, foreign language, or the arts. There aren’t enough textbooks or a functioning library or any after-school sports teams or clubs, according to the complaint. There are so many and such frequent teacher vacancies that students are allegedly taught often by non-certified staff, including the janitor, or they are taught by a series of substitutes who rotate in for two-week stints. The school shuts down altogether for weeks at a time.

The Obama administration has been candid about the federal government’s failure to meet the needs of nearly 50,000 Native young people in nearly 200 schools the Bureau of Indian Education oversees.

“Indian education is an embarrassment to you and to us,” [Interior Secretary Sally] Jewell told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in 2013.

The Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) oversees 183 Indian schools with 41,000 students, as I discuss in this study. The BIE operates about one-third of the schools, and tribal governments operate the other two-thirds.

The poor performance of the schools does not seem to be caused by a lack of funding. The schools received $830 million of federal aid in 2014, which is $20,000 per pupil. The GAO reports that “the average per pupil expenditures for BIE-operated schools—the only BIE schools for which detailed expenditure data are available—were about 56 percent higher than for public schools nationally.”

If more money is not the answer, what is? How about private management and school choice? Rather than running schools, the federal government could provide education block grants to the tribes, who would then outsource school management to expert education firms. Even better, federal funding could flow directly to Indian parents in the form of vouchers to be used at schools of their choice. I’ll be interested to see what former BIE head Keith Moore says about those options at the AEI forum.

More on school choice here.

Prepping for DeVos Confirmation Hearing

At 5:00 this afternoon—almost guaranteeing it will interrupt my usual dinner time—the confirmation hearing for education secretary-nominee Betsy DeVos will take place. With my Hungry Man “Gamer Grub” on a tray and my laptop right next to it, I’ll be live-tweeting the proceedings. So, too, will Jason Bedrick, though I have no idea what he’ll be eating if he’s dining at all. One can easily lose one’s appetite while witnessing political theater.

Here are the things I’m hoping to hear discussed:

  • Broadly speaking, what does DeVos think is the proper federal role in education? I know my—and the Constitution’s—answer.
  • What role, if any, should the federal government have in advancing school choice? For my answer, see the point above. And this. And this.
  • Does school choice work? Dems are likely to point to Michigan—DeVos’s home state—to answer “no.” In contrast, Jason and the Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden show that a fair reading of the Michigan research indicates the answer is “yes.”
  • President-elect Trump talked about getting rid of the Common Core. How would DeVos do that? Here’s what I think.
  • How should the Every Student Succeeds Act—the more hands-off successor to No Child Left Behind—be implemented? I say follow the spirit and letter of the law.
  • How do we get control of skyrocketing college prices, not to mention massive noncompletion? It is unclear what DeVos will say, but the evidence is powerful that Washington must do the opposite of what it has been doing.
  • What will be DeVos’s approach to for-profit colleges? I hope she’ll put them in the full higher education context.
  • What is the federal role in enforcing civil rights? My answer here.
  • Finally, won’t school choice—educational freedom—destroy the “cornerstone” of democracy, or America, or something else equally foundational? The answer—despite decades of rhetoric—is crystal clear: Quite the opposite.

There could be a lot of substance to chew on if the hearings stick to issues and not political theatrics. But if we mainly get the latter, at least I’ll have my frozen Salisbury steak, or some other grub, on which to chew.

The New York Times Continues to Mislead About School Choice in Michigan

Another day, another distortion from the Grey Lady on school choice.

In its quest to build a false narrative about Betsy DeVos, nominee for Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, the New York Times has continuously misled readers about the effects of charter schools in Detroit. The latest example comes from today’s editorial:

[DeVos] has also argued for shutting down Detroit public schools, with the system turned over to charters or taxpayer money given out as vouchers for private schools. In that city, charter schools often perform no better than traditional schools, and sometimes worse.

The NYT editors based their claim on a (faultyTimes op-ed from November in which Douglas Harris made the following claim:

As one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system, [DeVos] is partly responsible for what even charter advocates acknowledge is the biggest school reform disaster in the country. […] One well-regarded study found that Detroit’s charter schools performed at about the same dismal level as its traditional public schools.

At the time, Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review called out Harris for misrepresenting the Stanford CREDO study he had cited: “Follow the link to that ‘well-regarded study,’ and the results of Detroit’s charter schools do not sound nearly as helpful to Harris’s case as he suggests.”

Back in July, I highlighted the same report’s findings to dispel a similarly misleading description in the NYT:

As shown in this table from page 44 of the CREDO report, nearly half of Detroit’s charter schools outperformed the city’s traditional district schools in reading and math scores, while only one percent of charter schools performed worse in reading and only seven percent performed worse in math.

CREDO 2013 Michigan Charter School Study

NYT Misleads About School Choice Yet Again

Once again, the editors at the New York Times have allowed their bias against school choice to get in the way of reporting facts.

On Friday, the NYT ran a blog by Professor Susan Dynarski with the incredibly misleading headline (which, in fairness, she likely didn’t write): “Free Market for Education? Economists Generally Don’t Buy It.

Based on that description, you might think that a survey of economists found that most economists think a market in education wouldn’t work, or at least that there were more economists who thought it wouldn’t work than thought it would. Well, not quite. Dynarski writes:

But economists are far less optimistic about what an unfettered market can achieve in education. Only a third of economists on the Chicago panel agreed that students would be better off if they all had access to vouchers to use at any private (or public) school of their choice.

Follow the link to the 2011 IGM survey and you’ll find that 36% of surveyed economists agreed that school choice programs would be beneficial–but only 19% disagreed and 37% expressed uncertainty.

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Scott Alexander of the Slate Star Codex blog writes:

A more accurate way to summarize this graph is “About twice as many economists believe a voucher system would improve education as believe that it wouldn’t.”

By leaving it at “only a third of economists support vouchers”, the article implies that there is an economic consensus against the policy. Heck, it more than implies it – its title is “Free Market For Education: Economists Generally Don’t Buy It”. But its own source suggests that, of economists who have an opinion, a large majority are pro-voucher. […]

I think this is really poor journalistic practice and implies the opinion of the nation’s economists to be the opposite of what it really is. I hope the Times prints a correction.

Actually, it’s even worse than that. Oddly, Dynarski did not include the results from the more recent 2012 IGM survey, in which the level of support for school choice was higher (44%) and opposition was lower (5%), a nearly 9:1 ratio of support to opposition. When weighted for confidence, 54% thought school choice was beneficial only 6% disagreed.

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We should give Professor Dynarski the benefit of the doubt and assume that she didn’t know about the more recent results (though they pop right up on Google and the IGM search feature), but the NYT deserves no such benefit for its continuing pattern of misleading readers about the evidence for school choice.

“Only Progressives Need Apply”

William Felkner was a student at Rhode Island College, a state school, studying social work. The school’s faculty explained that as a profession “we do take sides” and are “devoted to the value of social and economic justice.” Accordingly, the professors required the students to lobby the state legislature for progressive policies.

But Felkner didn’t hold these same progressive views. When he refused to espouse the political ideology that was required, he was given failing grades and dismissed from the program. But of course the First Amendment has long been understood to prohibit the government from compelling an individual to espouse a political opinion with which he or she disagrees. Despite this, the lower state court actually upheld the school’s action, finding that no constitutional rights had been violated.

Cato has now joined the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the National Association of Scholars on an amicus brief to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, arguing that constitutional rights don’t stop at the schoolhouse door. The foundational case in this area was one in which the U.S. Supreme Court held the requirement to salute the flag in public schools was unconstitutional.

While the lower court here had held there was no evidence that Felkner was required to lobby, this holding is specifically refuted by the professor’s testimony. When asked, “So, in other words, the school was going to tell them which position they had to lobby on?”, he answered, “Yes.” The trial court also improperly focused on precedent at the primary and secondary school level rather than a post-secondary institution like Rhode Island College.

This precedent was about in-classroom speech—that teachers can maintain decorum in the classroom and require certain recitations as a means of instruction—but the trial court misapplied it to a requirement to lobby publicly in a context in which the student would be presumed to be speaking for himself. The trial court also misapplied precedent about speech which implicitly bore the approval of the school. While a school can properly restrict children’s speech that the public might reasonably perceive to be the school’s speech, it can’t require students to profess a certain political ideology—and there’s even less leeway if the students are adults.

In Felkner v. Rhode Island College, the Rhode Island Supreme Court should protect the First Amendment rights of students from being compelled to advocate policies with which they disagree as a condition of maintaining their standing at the school and progressing towards a degree.

Do Colleges Have an Edifice Complex, an Amenities Arms Race, or Both?

Think of college, and your mind may well conjure images of ivy creeping up the walls of stately, gray, Gothic stone buildings in which the deepest of learning occurs. Such buildings exist, of course, but reality is not so pleasantly simple: Those buildings cost big money to erect and maintain, money many colleges may not have. What’s more, students often demand that more fun stuff, rather than deep learning, occur inside them. Or so a new report suggests.

“College and university enrollments are, in aggregate, either stable or declining,” intones the report, titled “The State of Facilities in Higher Education: 2016 Benchmarks, Best Practices and Trends.” The paper is from Sightlines, an outfit that provides facilities data to academia. “In light of the building boom of recent years, many campuses now have more space to maintain and fewer students to fill it.”

Essentially, the report says that colleges have been on a big building binge, but enrollment has been stagnant or declining. The basic math is concerning: Greater capital costs, plus decreasing revenue, equals trouble.

Has the building boom been driven by an edifice complex — college presidents and faculty love new buildings all over campus that are imposing, cutting edge, or both — or an amenities arms race to bring in students?

It’s probably both, but the report puts the onus on a destructive race to attract increasingly scarce students who demand ever more luxury:

Several campuses, realizing the possibility of a decline in enrollment, used the new construction (especially for housing, dining, and recreation facilities) as a way of attracting additional students. The hope being that the development of new amenities and support services can make a campus more attractive to millennials. According to several campus administrators, today’s student body “expects” high-end dormitories, multiple dining options, and modern fitness and recreational facilities. But fulfilling those expectations comes at a cost.

The report says that for decades, college construction has focused more on creating non-academic than academic space, and about half of all college space today is for non-academic use.

It’s a classic arms race: Colleges frightened of losing tuition dollars feel constant pressure to spend on expensive facilities to compete for students, in the process greatly increasing the danger of becoming even more insecure financially, maybe hopelessly so.

But how can students demand all these pricey things that are often superfluous to learning?

The answer, largely, is that someone else is paying.

Students, like most people, would take nice things, all else equal. But most people are constrained by cost: They often can’t afford, or cannot justify, spending their hard-earned money on many lovely but expensive items or services. The vast majority of students, however, pay for college in part with someone else’s dough.

Much of that is in the form of direct taxpayer subsidies to public institutions, which enroll about 73 percent of all students, and in 2015 absorbed around $87 billion in state and local subsidies. Then there is federal student aid, including grants, loans, work study, and tax benefits, which totaled $158 billion in 2015.

Students can demand so much because, in large part, you and all your taxpaying friends are footing the bill.

College campuses are often covered in buildings that feel grand, almost mythical. But they are rooted in gritty reality: Someone’s got to pay for them, and that’s getting harder to do. Maybe the solution is to have those who demand the good life pay for it themselves.

[Cross-posted from the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog]

Want Satisfied Parents? Empower Them to Choose

Parents are more satisfied with their child’s learning environment when they choose it. Indeed, as economist Tyler Cowen put it recently, “the single most overwhelming (yet neglected) empirical fact” about educational choice programs is that “they improve parent satisfaction.” A slew of new reports add a number of hefty boulders to the mountain of evidence. 

As I explained in greater detail last week, bureaucrats tend to focus excessively on test scores but parents take a more holistic approach to evaluating the quality of an education provider. As Cowen notes, “parents may like the academic programs, teacher skills, school discipline, safety, student respect for teachers, moral values, class size, teacher-parent relations, parental involvement, and freedom to observe religious traditions, among other facets of school choice.” Parents know their children are more than scores.

Voters generally tend to reflect the views of parents more so than education technocrats. In a recent survey from Public School Options, only 14 percent of voters said they “consider state standardized test scores the critical factor in assessing a student’s overall success in school” and 78 percent said that schools “should never be closed primarily on the results of that particular school’s average” on the state’s standardized test. Moreover, 65 percent said they “believe an ongoing summary of each school’s status using a dashboard of multiple measurements would be more helpful to parents and policy makers” than a “system that provides a single letter grade for each school.” If we want an education system that considers the individual needs of each child rather than grading schools on a few narrow measures of performance for an imagined “typical” child, then we should entrust parents with holding education providers accountable for academic outcomes.

Education savings accounts (ESAs) are one way to accomplish that goal. With an ESA, parents can customize their child’s education, using it to pay for private school tuition as well as tutors, textbooks, online courses, educational therapy, and more. The ESAs are typically funded from a portion of the funds that the state would have spent on a child at his or her assigned district school, but they could also be funded through tax-credit eligible donations. In a 2013 survey, Arizona parents of students with special needs expressed unanimous satisfaction with the educational settings they chose for their children using the ESA funds. Moreover, the lowest-income families were the most likely to express dissatisfaction with their assigned district school (67 percent) and the most likely to say they were “very satisfied” with the education their child obtained through the ESA (89 percent).

Last week, Empower Mississippi released a similar survey of parents of students with special needs using Mississippi’s ESA. Participating students had an array of conditions, including autism, hearing or visual impairments, traumatic brain injuries, speech impairment, emotional disturbances, and more. The results mirrored those from Arizona. As shown in the two figures below, most participants were dissatisfied with their previous experience in their assigned district school (67 percent) but they overwhelmingly expressed satisfaction with the educational setting they chose using ESA funds (98 percent). 

Empower Mississippi: Parental Satisfaction

Source: Empower Mississippi