Topic: Education and Child Policy

Ed. Feds to Reinvent Wheel, Ignoring Pi

Education secretary Arne Duncan testified before Congress today on the president’s 2010 budget for the Department of Education. One of the first things he said was this:

We also plan to work very hard at scaling up success in our education system. Under our 2010 budget, the Department would continue to use the Innovation Fund created by the Recovery Act to identify and replicate successful models and strategies that raise student achievement. We know that there are many school systems and non-profit organizations across the country with demonstrated track records of success in raising student achievement, and our 2010 request would help bring their success to scale.

Duncan and President Obama are so, so right to focus on this challenge. Sadly, their efforts will so, so utterly fail, just as those of all their predecessors. Here’s why:

For a long time, observers of U.S. public schooling have wrung their hands over a pernicious problem: there are many isolated and transitory examples of excellence within the system (think “Stand and Deliver”), but efforts to scale these models up on a lasting, nationwide basis have always failed.

One early and notorious example was the federal Follow Through experiment of the late 1960s and early ’70s. At a cost of over a billion dollars, it demonstrated that one instruction method, “Distar,” clearly outperformed 21 others. Distar was #1 not just overall, but in each of the subcategories of reading, arithmetic, spelling and language. It placed a close second in promoting advanced conceptual skills, and was even the most effective at boosting students’ self-esteem and responsibility toward their work. Nothing else came close.

So what happened? The public school system failed to follow through on Follow Through. Not only was Distar NOT widely adopted around the country, most of the schools that had used it during the experimental phase subsequently dropped it. Their performance dropped commensurately. End of story.

Then there was the billion-dollar Annenberg Challenge of the 1990s, which was meant to identify and replicate successful education models around the country. The project was funded by TV Guide mogul Walter H. Annenberg, launched by then-president Bill Clinton, and overseen, in its Chicago operations, by Barack Obama. And it was another utter failure. Some good schools were created here and there, but the lasting, system-wide improvements that Annenberg had been hoping for never materialized. Why?

The reason is simple: the incredible progress we’ve witnessed in virtually every aspect of life for the past two centuries is the product of freedoms and incentives that do not exist in public schooling.  After spending most of their adult lives writing an awe-inspiring 11 volume history of the world, Will and Ariel Durant remarked that:

The experience of the past leaves little doubt that every economic system must sooner or later rely upon some form of the profit motive to stir individuals and groups to productivity. Substitutes like slavery, police supervision or ideological enthusiasm prove too unproductive, too expensive or too transient. (The Lessons of History, 1968, p. 54-55).

And while the Durants learned this lesson from their study of history, others learned it from personal experience. Michael Manley, leader of the People’s National Party and Vice President of the Socialist International, looked back on his time as Prime Minister of Jamaica and observed in New Perspectives Quarterly:

The fact is we all seriously miscalculated the capacity of the state to intervene effectively. Despite the enormous sincerity we brought to the task, our nationalist and statist approach didn’t work… When one tries to use the state as a major instrument of production, one quickly exhausts the managerial talent that can be mobilized in the name of patriotism. Absent the profit motive, it was truly amazing how few managers one could find that were motivated solely by love of their country, and how quickly these noble souls burned out. I call this idea the “Guevarist myth.” (1992, p. 46-47).

The automatic process by which useful innovations are encouraged, identified, disseminated, perpetuated, and finally superseded relies on innovators being free to do whatever they think is best for their customers, and having powerful incentives to constantly improve on the state of the art. That is why dramatic progress has been the norm under the free-enterprise system over the past 40 years, while public school productivity has plummeted.

Great educators and great schools can and do appear within the public school system, but they do so in spite of that system, not because of it. They never scale up in the way that Google, iPods, or the Kumon tutoring chain have scaled up, because they lack the combination of freedoms and incentives essential to doing so. Trying to get a bureaucracy with a state-protected funding monopoly to reliably scale up excellence in the way that markets do is like trying to reinvent the wheel with an alternative value of pi. It simply cannot be done.

True education markets are the ONLY system that will do what Secretary Duncan, President Obama, and the American people wish.

Week in Review: A School Choice Victory, Earmark Reform, and Drug Violence in Mexico

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Obama Dips a Toe in the Educational Choice Pool

After Congress voted to let the Washington D.C. voucher program expire, stripping 1,700 low-income children of the opportunity to attend private schools, President Obama said he will keep the program afloat in subsequent legislation.

“It wouldn’t make sense to disrupt the education of those that are in that system,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary. “And I think we’ll work with Congress to ensure that a disruption like that doesn’t take place.”

Andrew J. Coulson, director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom, commented on Obama’s decision to continue to extend school choice benefits to underprivileged children in the nation’s capital:

This is a crucial milestone. There is finally a major national Democratic leader who is beginning to catch up to his state-level peers. Democrats all around the country have been supporting and signing small education tax credit programs because they realize that these programs are win-win: good for their constituents and good for their long-term political futures.

In an op-ed that ran the day Gibbs made the announcement, Coulson explained why those who oppose school choice will find themselves on the wrong side of history.

In 2006, Susan Aud and Leon Michos published a report on the fiscal impact of the D.C. voucher program, which documented the success of the District’s school choice pilot, the first federally funded voucher program in the United States.

Obama Signs Earmark-Heavy $410 Billion Omnibus Bill

After signing a bill that had nearly $8 billion in earmarks, President Obama declared that from then on, his administration would work toward earmark reform.

Sounds a bit like St. Augustine’s famous prayer, “Lord, make me chaste but not just yet,” said Daniel Griswold, director of Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies:

Recall that as a candidate, Obama said he and Democratic leaders in Congress would change the “business as usual” practice of stuffing spending bills with pet projects. Those earmarks, submitted by individual members to fund obscure projects in their own districts and states, typically become law without any debate or transparency.

Saying he would sign the “imperfect bill,” President Obama offered guidelines to curb earmarks … in the future. “The future demands that we operate in a different way than we have in the past,” he said. “So let there be no doubt: this piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability.”

Lord, make us fiscally responsible, but not just yet.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders are condemning the president’s expansion of the federal government. But do they have any standing to judge? Senior Fellow Michael D. Tanner said no:

The Bush administration’s brand of big-government conservatism was, at the very least, the greatest expansion of government from Lyndon Johnson to, well, Barack Obama.

For Cato’s policy recommendations on earmarked spending, see the “Corporate Welfare and Earmark Reform” chapter in the 2009 Cato Handbook for Policymakers.

Violence Spills into the U.S. from Mexico’s Drug War

With daily reports of increased violence coming from Mexico, Cato Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies Ted Galen Carpenter said the brutality is an indicator of power and arrogance, not desperation, and asserts that gun restrictions in the U.S. will not subdue violence:

The notion that the violence in Mexico would subside if the United States had more restrictive laws on firearms is devoid of logic and evidence. Mexican drug gangs would have little trouble obtaining all the guns they desire from black market sources in Mexico and elsewhere…

… Even assuming that the Mexican government’s estimate that 97 percent of the weapons used by the cartels come from stores and gun shows in the United States-and Mexican officials are not exactly objective sources for such statistics-the traffickers rely on those outlets simply because they are easier and more convenient, not because there are no other options.

Carpenter spoke at a Cato policy forum last month, and explained why the war on drugs sparks such intense levels of violence.

In a Policy Analysis published in early February, Carpenter warned of the need to change our policy on the Mexican drug conflict, so as to prevent the violence from spreading across the border.

Tax Credits, Courts, and Cabers

As Adam Schaeffer notes on this blog today, education tax credits have won in court, again. This time in Arizona.

I’ve long argued that their superior resistance to court challenge is one of many reasons to favor tax credits over other approaches to school choice. But there’s one court that even credits are likely to run into trouble with: the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The 9th Circuit is the most statist appellate court in the nation, and it has been sitting on an education tax credit case, Winn v. Garriott, for more than a year. For the record, I expect it to rule against the program sometime in 2009. If it does, that ruling will be appealed and almost certainly overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Supporters of educational freedom should both brace themselves for this setback and also put it in perspective. The 9th Circuit is overturned more often than a caber at the Highland games.

Education Tax Credits Upheld, Again

The decision by the Arizona court of Appeals today upholding the constitutionality of the business tax credit program should put to bed once and for all these frivolous lawsuits against tax credits. Opponents are wasting their money.

Education tax credits are taxpayer funds and therefore cannot run afoul of state constitutional provisions regarding the use of government funds. It really is just that simple.

Some school choice supporters have given up on vouchers because of recent disappointments and think that means the end for private school choice. They forget the most successful school choice policy in recent years is education tax credits.

Not only have tax credit programs been passed and expanded with regularity (GA just passed a $50 million, universal program last year), education tax credits have proven bullet-proof in court.

Education tax credits are the future for school choice, and it’s looking pretty bright.

Obama First Dem President to Support Vouchers

Through his press secretary Robert Gibbs, president Obama has declared that he will reverse congressional Democrats’ phase-out of the DC Opportunity Scholarships program. The scholarships make private schooling affordable for 1,700 poor DC children, most of whom would be forced back into the District’s broken public school system if it were to end.

However – yes, there’s always a however – there’s every indication that president Obama will do the minimum necessary to keep the program going at its current size, and will not help to expand it.

This is nevertheless a crucial milestone. There is finally a major national Democratic leader who is beginning to catch up to his state-level peers. Democrats all around the country have been supporting and signing small education tax credit programs because they realize that these programs are win-win: good for their constituents and good for their long-term political futures.

The old guard of the Democratic party – typified by congressional leaders – still imagines that school choice is bad for them. They still think that they can roll back time to a period when the public school monopoly was inviolate. That time has passed. Real educational freedom is spreading – slowly – around the country. That is not going to stop.

The last Democrats to be found jamming their fingers into the dike, hoping to stop the flight to educational freedom, will find their political careers swept away when that dike finally crumbles.

Where Are the Muckrakers?

In the mythology of journalism, investigative reporters fall somewhere between archangels and demigods. They protect the public by exposing political deceit and corruption, burrowing relentlessly into the words and deeds of those in power, in search of the truth. And in the field of education, they are as numerous as leprechauns and unicorns.

In education, “muckrakers,” as Teddy Roosevelt called them, are few and far between. There are, however, legions of mucksailors – reporters who glide over the surface of a story, seldom probing beneath the public statements of those in power to determine their truth or falsehood. Through my web browser window I can watch the sails of a vast muck navy.

Consider the coverage of the battle over DC’s school voucher program. Democrats inserted language into the $410 billion omnibus spending bill that would sunset funding for the program after next year, instead of simply reauthorizing it for another full five-year term. The vouchers could still be reauthorized when they come up again, but since House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey ( D-Wis.) has already told DC public schools to prepare for the return of voucher students, that seems highly unlikely.

So here we have Democrats working to shut down a program serving 1,700 poor kids in the nation’s capital – kids who are so desperate to stay in their chosen private schools that they’ve made YouTube videos beseeching Congress and president Obama to save it. Given that most people are not inherently so cruel, why would Democrats want to kill this program? They say it’s because it robs money from needy public schools and gives it to private schools that are already flush from lavish tuition fees. But. Is. That. TRUE?

Is DC’s government-run k-12 system financially needy? Are the independent schools serving voucher students making a Madoff-style killing?

No. And… No.

These claims are rubbish. They are, in fact, MUCK. I have run the numbers on DC government k-12 education spending for the current school year and it is $26,555 per pupil. According to the government’s own published study of the voucher program, the average tuition charged by participating schools is $5,928. Furthermore, the voucher program actually added an extra $13 million a year to the DC public school budget, as a “sweetener” to elicit local and Democratic support.

But most Americans will never learn any of that. Because we have no muckrakers in the mainstream education media. We have mucksailors.

This is not entirely the journalists’ fault. Media businesses have been hit very hard in recent years, and are understaffed compared to earlier generations. Reporters are stretched very thin. But I ask the editorial establishment, what is more valuable to your readers: A dozen stories that merely regurgitate the official muck, or a single top notch investigative piece that demonstrates how our political leaders are flagrantly misleading the American people and exposes their real motives?

Speak truth to power? Anyone?

Anyone?

The Early-Ed Big Lie

In a speech on education this morning at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, President Obama repeats questionable statistics in support of his bid to expand the government’s monopoly on education back to the womb, asserting that “$1 of early education leads to $10 in saved social services.”

Unfortunately he’s referring to small-scale programs that involved extensive and often intensive total-family intervention rather than simple “early education.”

In contrast to the– real-world school choice programs have been tested extensively with solid, random-assignment studies. Nine out of ten of these studies find statistically significant improvement in academic achievement for at least one subgroup.

Obama should follow the scientific evidence on what works in education; school choice, not “early education.”